Two significant cases on mooring rights in the Thames handed down

May 9, 2024

Nicholas Ostrowski

In the first decision (Alistair Trotman v The Environment Agency [2024] EWHC 825) the High Court upheld the decision of the Environment Agency (as the conservator of the Thames and as harbour master) to bring a criminal prosecution of a boater who had moored his boat in and around Molesey Lock and refused to move it for several days.

In a decision which clarifies the harbour master’s powers to serve notices on boaters, Sheldon J held that the harbour master of the Thames was entitled to serve a notice requiring a boater to move even though there is a public right of navigation on the Thames and even when the boater is unwilling to move their boat as or when requested. The Judge held that the harbour master’s direction to the boater was not ultra vires despite lasting indefinitely.

Separately, the High Court also upheld the Agency’s ability to prosecute a boater for a breach of the Thames Navigation Licensing and General Byelaws 1993 which cover the way in which boaters are required to navigate their boats while on the Thames.

The judgment’s discussion of the Environment Agency’s powers to control boating on the Thames through the use of Harbour-Master’s directions and through enforcing the byelaws gives welcome clarification to both boaters and regulators on the Thames.

A copy of the judgment is available here.


In the second decision, HHJ Simpkiss in the County Court in Staines upheld the Environment Agency’s right to bring proceedings for possession of land against a number of boaters who were moored floating above (but not touching) the riverbed around Sunbury-on-Thames which was owned by the Agency.

Crucially, the judge upheld the Environment Agency’s right to recover possession of the riverbed land even though the Environment Agency could not demonstrate that it owned the riverbank next to which the boats were moored (both the Environment Agency and the individual boaters claimed ownership of parts of the riverbank at the relevant location by means of adverse possession but these were the subject of dispute before the Land Registry). The boater’s rights over the riverbank may have resulted in the boaters obtaining certain riparian rights but those riparian rights did not generate a defence to a claim for possession of the riverbed land.

The Judge also dismissed as unarguable a number of public law defences made by the Defendants related to their Article 8 rights, the Equality Act 2010 and Article 1 of the 1st Protocol before considering the difficult question in possession claims over water about the width of such an order and whether a possession order can cover a wider stretch of the Thames than the area over which the boats are currently moored.

This decision settles a number of questions about the Environment Agency’s powers as landowner of parts of the Thames.

A copy of the decision can be downloaded here.

Nicholas Ostrowski appeared for the Environment Agency in both cases.