Law guide: Complaints & disputes

See how we helped Liz

"It's not just a website... there are people there on call who can help answer your queries."

Liz W, London




Litter in England and Wales

Litter is anything dropped in a public place, from sweet wrappers to bin liners or household rubbish. It also includes smoking-related litter. An estimated 122 tonnes of cigarette butts, matchsticks and cigarette-related litter is dropped every day across the UK.

The presence of litter degrades the environment and affects people's quality of life.

The law on litter

To throw down, drop or otherwise deposit and leave litter in any place open to the air is a criminal offence, even when dropped on private land or water.

Section 87 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA), as amended by the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, makes it an offence to drop, throw or deposit and leave litter anywhere. This offence includes dropping litter in water such as rivers, streams and lakes and can incur a fine of up to £2,500.

The police or local authority can prosecute the offender; it is also possible for private individuals to prosecute. The offence is dealt with by the magistrates' court, with a maximum fine of £2,500.

Prosecution for dropping litter is time consuming and expensive, making it very difficult to prosecute large numbers of litter offenders. As an alternative to prosecution, fixed penalty notices may be issued. If the penalty is not paid, however, the case should usually be pursued to the magistrates' court.

Section 88 of the EPA gives the power to issue a fixed penalty notice for the offence of leaving litter. Principal litter authorities have the power to specify the level of fine that will apply in their area, with a standard default amount of £75 if they choose not to do so. The offender has 14 days to pay. Failure to pay can result in a prosecution. Where appropriate, penalty notices may be issued to children aged 10 or over, as well as to adults.

Local authorities are entitled to keep any of the money they get out of fixed penalty notices.

Penalty notices

Penalty notices can be issued by

  • Litter authority authorised officers, including persons not employed by the local authority (includes parish councils, National Park authorities and the Broads Authority)
  • Accredited persons - litter wardens
  • Police community support officers (PCSOs)

Power to photograph persons given a penalty notice

Police officers, PCSOs (where designated) and accredited persons, have the power to photograph persons, away from the police station, who have been issued with a penalty notice. By taking photographs of those who have been issued with a penalty notice, their ability to claim that they were not present when the incident happened is greatly reduced.

Who is responsible for cleaning up litter?

On public property

The local authority has a legal duty to clear refuse and litter from land for which it has responsibility, such as streets, parks, playgrounds, tourist beaches and pedestrian areas.

Members of the public can apply to the magistrates' court for a Litter Abatement Order to ensure that an area under the control of a duty body is cleared of litter and refuse. The notice requires the responsible body to clean the area within a specified timescale. Non-compliance is punishable by a maximum fine of £2,500.

Section 56 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 allows a local authority in England to enter land owned by the Crown or by a statutory undertaker (a body with a legal responsibility for keeping the area clean and litter free), in order to clean the area. The local authority can then recover its costs through the courts.

Local authorities can issue Street Litter Control Notices requiring owners or occupiers of certain types of commercial premises that have frontage on a street, to prevent or remove the accumulation of litter or refuse in streets and adjacent open land, where the litter is related to their activities (for example, takeaway food premises). This will include any vehicle, stall or other moveable structure, while parked at a set place on, or verging, a street. Failure to comply with a Street Litter Control Notice will result in a fixed penalty notice of £100 (default level) or a penalty set at a local level of between £75 and £110.

Local authorities can also place controls on the distribution of free literature, to prevent flyers, handouts and pamphlets from becoming litter. It is an offence for anyone to distribute, or cause someone else to distribute, free literature, without consent, in an area designated in terms of the EPA by a principal litter authority. The offence incurs a fixed penalty notice of £75 (default level) or between £50 and £80 if set at a local level. Non-payment can result in prosecution in the magistrates' court.

On private land

If a piece of private land is littered, the owner is responsible for clearing the litter. Local authorities do have the power to take legal action to get these areas cleaned up. If any court, yard or passage used by the occupants of two or more buildings, is not regularly swept and kept clean and free from rubbish to the local authority's satisfaction, the authority may sweep and clean the area and recover any expenses incurred from the occupiers of the buildings.

Local authorities may also require that the owner or occupier of land destroy rats or mice on the land, or otherwise keep the land free from them.

Notices and orders

Litter clearing notices

Local authorities have the power to issue litter clearing notices. These notices require individuals and businesses to remove litter from their land.

The litter clearing notice must be served on the occupier (or if none, the owner of the land) and requires the clearance of litter/refuse and specific steps to be taken to prevent its recurrence.

Non-compliance with a litter clearing notice may result in a fixed penalty or summary proceedings in a magistrates' court. The principal litter authority for that area may also enter the land to which the notice relates, clear it of litter and refuse itself, and recover the costs from the occupier or owner of the land concerned.

Litter abatement notices

Local authorities can serve litter abatement notices on bodies that fail to keep their area free of litter and refuse. The owner of the land concerned must clean up the area within a given time or face a fine, plus an additional daily fine if the offence continues. The timescale will depend on what type of land it is, such as whether it is residential, part of a town centre, or a beach, etc.

If the land is not cleaned within the set timescale, the local authority can enter the land, remove the litter or waste and reclaim their costs from the owner of the land.

Dog control orders

Local authorities can issue dog control orders in the case of dog litter.

Dog control orders can be used on any land that is open to the air and which the public can use either with or without payment.

Land is treated as land "open to the air" if it is open to the air on at least one side e.g. railway platform or garage forecourt that remains open to the air at all times.

The Secretary of State has the power to designate types of land to be excluded, such as forestry commission land.

Litter in Scotland

The Environmental Protection Act 1990 section 88 applies in Scotland. However, there are differences in the court structure and procedure. Litter offences would be dealt with by the sheriff's court in Scotland and not the magistrates' court.

Litter abatement orders also apply in Scotland. The Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 does not extend to Scotland. In Scotland, the equivalent is the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004. Under the Scottish Act, fixed penalty notices can be issued for littering. Street Litter Control Notices can also be issued in Scotland.

Litter in Northern Ireland

The Litter (Northern Ireland) Order 1994 (and its associated Code of Practice), and the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 allows councils to take action in relation to littering offences.

If a person litters, they are guilty of causing an offence. A council, in order to abate litter, can make known to the public the penalty for the above offence.

Local council employees can be made authorised officers of the council, and if they think a littering offence has been committed, they can demand the name and address of the person they believe is guilty. If a person believed to be guilty fails to comply with this demand, they are guilty of an additional offence and can be fined. The council can institute proceedings for littering offences being committed within its district.

Authorised council officers can issue fixed penalty notices (FPN) for littering offences. The guilty person has 14 days to pay a £50 FPN. If the person pays the FPN, they can't be charged with the littering offence in court. If a person does not pay an FPN, they can be convicted of that offence in a court.