Under UK and many other national and international laws, there are two types of environmental liability: criminal and civil liability. Criminal liability applies where a person or organisation has broken a law defined in a statute, and where there is a mental and physical element leading to the breach of the law.

This could, for example, include an operator who deliberately disposes of hazardous waste illegally, causing environmental damage. Civil liability, on the other hand, refers to a case where one person or organisation seeks compensation from another for alleged damage, where a court of law can provide a remedy. Breach of contract would be one example.

Environmental laws provide for criminal liability, civil liability, enforcement and compensation. Environmental regulators have enforcement and prosecution policies to provide for applying the provisions for liability, and indeed are required to have such policies. In recent years, the Environmental Liability Directive (2004/35/EC) and the Environmental Crime Directive (2008/99/EC) have strengthened the powers that regulators and individuals have to both prosecute and seek compensation for environmental damage caused by others. Although the UK has now left the European Union, the principles on which these directives are based are mainly embedded in retained UK implementing law.

This topic describes the principles and elements of liability, together with a summary of the principles introduced by the two directives.

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