Prosecution for littering offences ineffective and inadequate – report

New research finds that fewer than half of all littering fines are paid

White goods dumped on the Great South Wall in Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller

White goods dumped on the Great South Wall in Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Prosecution for littering offences is both ineffective and inadequate in Ireland, according to new research which reveals fewer than half of littering fines are actually paid.

A report of the findings due to be published on Friday also notes that legal costs at up to twice the size of the average court fine make prosecutions difficult for local authorities.

In a detailed examination of littering and enforcement, the environmental charity Voice found that while 21,310 litter fines were paid between 2012 and 2017 this represented just 43 per cent of those levied.

The study, Dealing with Ireland’s Public Waste, finds that local authorities face difficult choices about taking suspected offenders to court because legal costs are so high.

Between 2012 and 2017, the majority of 6,032 court cases taken by local authorities against individuals or companies were unsuccessful. Just 30 per cent went in favour of the local authority.

More than €700,000 in total fines was awarded by judges in favour of the local authorities in 1,812 cases over the period, equating to €386 per fine. However, cases appear to cost more than €600 on average to prosecute.

“On this basis where councils do pursue unpaid litter fines in court they are doing so at a significant deficit,” the report states.

“In addition to this, many councils stated that the courts often do not award the full cost of the fine to the council but rather indicate a donation to be paid to a particular charitable cause, thus leaving little incentive for councils to pursue these fines via the courts.”

Such legal outcomes appear to present a quandary when it comes to enforcing laws aimed at preventing environmental pollution through the legal system.

Voice further notes that even when cases are successful, it is not always straightforward to recover the money from defendants. “Prosecution for littering offences is both ineffective and inadequate,” it says.

In 2016, the report notes, Ireland generated 2.7 million tonnes of waste – commercial and domestic – amounting to just over 580kg per person.

Voice presented 31 councils with a detailed survey questionnaire, the results of which give a comprehensive overview of the situation in Ireland today – during a time of heightened concern around pollution and plastics use.

Of the 31 councils, 29 responded (Carlow and Kilkenny did not) but nine could give only partial or incomplete responses. These included Cavan, Donegal, Limerick city and county, Tipperary, Sligo, Offaly, Mayo and Galway county.

Average spending

Of the 29 which responded, 24 councils spent €409 million on street cleaning, an average of about €68 million a year. The vast majority of them have no dedicated litter wardens but staff who operate as both litter and traffic wardens.

Every year, an average of 8,300 fines are issued by authorities. Unsurprisingly Dublin City Council was behind the majority in numerical terms (18 per cent or 9,059) but on a per capita basis the most aggressive council for fines was Longford.

Kerry had the highest rate of unpaid fines at 68 per cent while Dublin City had the best payment rate, at 76 per cent. Voice estimates lost revenue from fines to be at about €1 million over the five-year study period.

Section 3 offences under the Litter Pollution Act – including fly-tipping, putting household waste in public bins and littering public places – were the most commonly reported offences by local authorities.

Data on litter volumes is incomplete but that garnered from 18 councils showed 244,000 tonnes of waste were collected from street litter and rubbish bins over the five-year period.

The report also notes that as local authorities are exempt from landfill levies, materials that may be suitable for other disposal such as recycling or “waste to energy” use are sent to dumps regardless as it is cheaper to do so.

“If this practice is common place, it could mean more waste going to landfill than needs to and materials that could be better managed via recycling and recovery are being lost,” the report states. “There is a significant lacuna of data on where public waste is sent and how it is processed.”

The report also describes data on litter and street waste as “sparse and incomplete” with large variations across the local authority network.

“Management of littering as a whole is inadequate and countrywide there appears to be a trend towards increased fly-tipping,” it says.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Voice’s co-ordinator, Mindy O’Brien, said its 10-month study shows that Ireland needs “a wholescale debate” on the real costs of litter, and of cleaning it up if “better methods” to tackle “litter louts” are to be found.

“Enforcement is not working the way it should as many fines are ignored and the ones that are pursued in court are done at a loss to the local authority,” she said.

Calling for the collection of better statistics and data, Ms O’Brien said there “are a lot of holes” in existing records. “Without this information, we will be unable to tackle public waste in the most cost-effective way.

“There should be a uniform and consistent methodology for collecting data across all local authorities and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment should set the data collection standards,” she said.