Mock trial exposes dangers of expensive contamination cases

A MOCK trial organised by the Sheffield business community has highlighted the dangers posed to local authorities by the government's planned contaminated land laws.

The trial, organised by the Sheffield Green Business Club at Sheffield Magistrates Court, saw a Sheffield City Council environmental health officer serve clear-up notices on two imaginary companies.

Nabarro Nathanson solicitor, Ray Clarke, who attended the mock trials to advise on legal issues, warned that companies were likely to challenge local authorities in the courts rather than pay to clean up their own back yards.

Draft statutory guidance on contaminated-land legislation is now out for public consultation and Clarke said council solicitors could find themselves in the courtroom as early as next year testing the legislation's boundaries.

Companies might find it financially beneficial to probe perceived weaknesses in the proposed laws in the courts, he said.

"I think the guidance still lacks clarity. It is a minefield," he said. "I think companies will be tempted to test these provisions."

Clarke added that a three-month period where negotiation not confrontation was supposed to sort out who was responsible for costly clean-ups, might be ignored by companies who saw the magistrates court as a better financial bet.

Companies that admit responsibility for contaminated land might also be able to shelter behind hardship clauses. That would leave tax payers to carry the cost of removing industrial pollution.