NI: NI Blog: When the inspector calls…

Kate McCusker
Kate McCusker

Kate McCusker, associate solicitor at Cleaver Fulton Rankin Solicitors in Belfast, examines how businesses should respond to a visit from environmental inspectors.

What should you do if an inspector from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) arrives at your site claiming that a serious pollution incident has occurred and they want to carry out an inspection?

If there is no procedure in place to deal with this event then such incidents can be a source of major panic.

The best way to avoid an unexpected visit from an inspector is of course to stay out of trouble in the first place, however it is good practice to err on the side of caution and to put in place a protocol for your staff to follow should the inspector unexpectedly call.

We would also recommend that you train your staff about the powers an inspector has and what they can expect to happen during an inspection. In 2015, most environmental prosecutions by NIEA were brought under the Water (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. Under the 1999 Order an inspector may enter premises at any reasonable time in order to determine whether there has been a breach of the legislation. An inspector also has wide powers of investigation, for example, they can (amongst others) carry out surveys, take away samples and install and keep monitoring and other apparatus on site. Staff should be made aware that it is a criminal offence to obstruct such an authorised person from entering premises.

We would recommend that any protocol should deal with the following:

  1. An inspector arriving on site should be asked for their authorisation to come on site and the scope of that authorisation. If they don’t have the necessary authority, it may be possible to exclude any evidence produced in court which was obtained as a result of that inspection.
  2. Only persons expressly authorised should liaise with the inspector. Those persons should be trained in how to deal with inspections including how to answer any questions posed by the inspector. Disorganised, ill-informed and hasty responses could make it appear to the inspector that your company has something to hide. But a word of caution, staff members should answer specific questions but should not volunteer information – if they do not know the answer to a question they should not speculate.
  3. The inspector may caution staff on site. Best practice is to make no comment until legal advice has been sought.
  4. A note should be taken of any visits, including the name of the inspector, the date of their visit, the reason for the visit, the company personnel who dealt with the matter and duplicate photos should also be taken.
  5. The inspector should be asked for details of NIEA’s understanding of the alleged incident, including the date and time of the incident, the person who notified NIEA and whether any damage is alleged to have been caused.
  6. If the inspector considers that an offence may have been committed they may ask company staff to attend an interview under caution. Any confession or admissions made during an interview under caution may be used in any subsequent criminal proceedings. We would strongly recommend that legal advice is sought should you be asked to attend an interview under caution.

    Whilst it is always difficult to face a significant environmental incident which results in investigation, if a protocol has been put in place and is followed, this should give the company the best possible chance of avoiding prosecution. We would also advise that you seek legal advice at an early stage so you can be guided through this process.

    • Kate McCusker is an associate solicitor at Cleaver Fulton Rankin Solicitors in Belfast. You can view her profile here.
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