Public Interest Law Centre

public law | human rights | legal action

4Apr 2024

Ousted to set an example

4th April 2024|

Ten people to be evicted from the area on the Thames where they’ve lived for up to 17 years after the Environmental Agency exercises control over unregistered land.

Ten people have been ousted from the place they have lived for several years by the Environment Agency (EA).

The EA issued possession proceedings to the ten defendants last year. It alleged that the residents were preventing others from sailing, mooring and enjoying public right of navigation despite the fact that many other boats are permanently moored in the same area – and still are.

Following the judgement made in February, the defendants may be evicted from their moorings and have nowhere to live on their boats.

Who owns the riverbank?

The EA has statutory powers to regulate the Thames and owns the riverbed. They also believed that they owned the bank of the river itself – but this currently remains unregistered with His Majesty’s Land Registry (HMLR).

It seems as though the EA has issued the proceedings against these residents so that no one can be found to have a better claim to the land than they do when they pursue their application to register this part of riverbank with HMLR.

The legal case

PILC acted for five of the ten residents affected by the possession proceedings. The defendant residents built the legal case with PILC solicitor Keith Coughtrie. It contained the following defences:

  • they were in occupation of the riverbank
  • some had already tried to register the land themselves by adverse possession of land (a legal principle where someone can gain ownership of another person’s land by openly using it without permission for a specified period (usually 10-12 years), while meeting certain criteria.)
  • they had riparian rights through custom to moor on the Thames
  • some boaters already have temporary planning permission to residentially occupy the area
  • evicting the boaters would interfere with rights under Article 8 of The Human Rights Act (the right to a home).

A less intrusive method of the EA achieving its objective would have been to allow the vessels to remain where they are until the planning authority has found a permanent mooring for them to move to.

The fact they haven’t means that the defendants now have nowhere to live.

What are riparian rights?

Landowners have the right to make ‘reasonable use’ of natural running bodies of water, such as rivers or streams, that flow through or over their properties. These rights are known as riparian rights.

These rights include the right to moor boats to the bank, and to place structures on the bank and bed of the watercourse. This is customary along the bank of the river Thames.

The riparian owner’s rights don’t necessarily depend on ownership of the bed directly under the water itself – it may simply arise through owning land or property that is connected to it.

Since the riverbank was unregistered land, the defendants wanted to exercise the rights of a riparian owner and moor their boats alongside their land as adverse possessors without trespassing.

The judgement

Following the hearing in October 2023, a judgement was returned in February 2024. His Honour Judge Simpkiss found that there was no defence based on riparian rights on the basis that effective ownership of the riverbank was ultimately irrelevant as the EA owned the riverbed. He also dismissed the public law arguments.

The outcome appears to be that anybody mooring a boat on the Thames between Sunbury and Cherry Orchard could be removed from their mooring unless they have an agreement with the EA.

PILC solicitor Keith Coughtrie said “It’s deeply concerning that the judge threw out every defence made by the people who have lived on their boats at this location for nearly 17 years. It seems as though the EA issued the proceedings against these residents so that no one can be found to have a better claim to the land than they do when they pursue their application to register this part of riverbank with HMLR. This judgement sets a worrying precedent that despite not having rights to the waterway, the EA can evict people on this basis.”

PILC works to to defend and promote the rights of all people to be able to pursue a nomadic way of life. There are around 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers in the United Kingdom, 100,000 of whom live in a caravan or other mobile structure, such as boat and van dwellers. It is also well documented that a disproportionate amount of planning applications by Gypsies and Travellers are rejected, whether that is to reside on their own land or for the development of other sites.

We provide legal advice and representation to Gypsies and Travellers who do not live in brick and mortar housing and seek safe and suitable living conditions, including bargees and van-dwellers.

Want to talk to us about a case? Contact Keith on keith.coughtrie@pilc.org.uk or on 07503084482.