In recent times there appears to have been an increasing trend of public authorities using the arm of the law to seize assets under the criminal code in circumstances where historically they relied largely on the civil courts to address environmental breaches.

The Environment Agency is increasingly using the criminal statutes to achieve what they would consider effective results of seizing assets and using the criminal statutes to  undertake search and surveillance.  In recent times it set up the Illegal Waste Site Taskforce to crackdown on waste crime. 

In the past those operating within the waste permitting regime would have found that the Environment Agency would have consulted with them and attempted to arrive at a result/solution by informing the operator of any breaches and providing them some opportunity to remedy breaches.  In more recent times the Environment Agency has taken the view that deterrence is a more effective remedy and is taking a much more robust stance on enforcing. 

The High Court in the case of Sweeney v Westminster Magistrates Court and another [2014] EWHC 2068 (Admin) has confirmed that due process of law needs to be followed and that even in this case  where a court order authorising search and seizure (without notice) has been obtained it was still perfectly possible for those on the receiving end of such heavy-handed action to challenge both the issuing of the warrant for search and seizure and to question the basis upon which such authorisation was been obtained. 

In the event that you are on the receiving end of heavy-handed action by public authorities it is clear that it will be well worth consulting your lawyers as soon as possible.  In the case of Sweeney the High Court has not only reversed the court order for search and seizure but has also required and that Mr Sweeney's costs be paid and all items returned.  A further claim for damages will no doubt follow.  This is a decision well worth noting both by public authorities and those on the receiving end of enforcement action.