Law guide: Complaints and disputes

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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.

Litter in England and Wales

The law on litter

To throw down, drop or otherwise deposit and leave litter in any place open to the air, including private land, is a criminal offence under section 87 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA), (as amended by the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005). This offence includes dropping litter in water such as rivers, streams and lakes.

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, section 88 of the EPA gives the power to issue a fixed penalty notice for the offence of leaving litter. Local 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.

Notices and Orders to prevent and clean 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.

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.

In England and Wales, under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, the local authority can make a Public Spaces Protection Order for a particular area and use that order to prohibit the dropping of litter that is persistent or continuing, unreasonable and has a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality. They can also issue Penalty Notices. See Solutions (England & Wales).

On private land

If a piece of private land is littered, the owner is responsible for clearing the litter. Litter causing a nuisance to the public or which is prejudicial to public health (e.g. if causing infestation by rats and mice) could amount to a statutory nuisance under s 79 of the Environment Protection Act. Local authorities have the power to take legal action. They can apply for an abatement order and an order to recover any expenses the authority has incurred to remedy the situation.

The local authority and police also have power to issue a Community Protection Notice to the property owner or occupier under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act if their conduct is unreasonable and having a detrimental effect, of a persistent or continuing nature, on the quality of life of those in the locality. This notice must specify the action required by the owner or occupier but can only require them to do what is reasonable to stop the detrimental effect.

If the owner or occupier fails to carry out the action required in the notice, they commit an offence and are liable to a fine of up to £2,500. Alternatively, they can also be given a fixed penalty notice of up to £100. The local authority may carry out the work required if the premises is open to the air. If the premises is not open to the air, they must have the consent of the owner/occupier to go onto the premises to carry out any work. The local authority can recover their expenses in doing the work from the owner/occupier.

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. See Solutions (Scotland & Northern Ireland) for more information.

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 an offence. A council, in order to abate litter, can make known to the public the penalty for this 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. See Solutions (Scotland & Northern Ireland) for more information.

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