Return to view all news articles.

Riparian Rights – Exercised or Rebutted?

by Rachel Armitage 14th March 2024

What are Riparian rights?

Riparian rights are an ancient set of rights for those who have properties which adjoin a body of water – whether a river, stream or pond etc. Those whose land abuts a natural watercourse are known as Riparian owners. Landowners on each side of the watercourse are responsible for the maintenance of the watercourse itself and the flow within it.

Riparian rights are crucial for maintaining the balance between the needs of property owners and the preservation of water ecosystems.

Principles of Riparian Rights

Generally, all landowners whose properties adjoin a body of water have the right to make reasonable use of the water as it flows through or over their properties.

Riparian rights cannot be sold or transferred, other than with the adjoining land.

The rights and responsibilities of riparian owners apply where the watercourse forms a boundary with another legal owner, and also where a watercourse passes immediately adjacent to a boundary, even if it is outside of the landowner’s ownership.

The Natural Rights of a Riparian Owner

The natural rights of a riparian owner in relation to a natural stream are threefold:

1. A right of use – riparian owners can use the water for certain purposes connected to the land adjoining the watercourse, such as fishing, mooring and discharge into the watercourse (subject to the rights of other riparian owners).

2. A right of flow – a riparian owner is entitled to have the water come to them and go from them without obstruction.

3. A right of purity – the water passing through should be unpolluted.

Riparian Owners’ Responsibilities

A riparian owner has a duty to other landowners with riparian rights, as well as the community and the environment. These responsibilities include: -

1. The water must flow through their land without any obstruction, pollution or diversion which affects the rights of others.

2. They must keep any structures such as culverts, weirs etc. free of debris. The maintenance of such structures must be discussed with the relevant risk management authority.

Riparian Rights Case Law

  1. John Young & Co v Bankier Distillery Co (1893) – A mine had been discharging pit water into a stream which polluted it to such an extent it was unfit for the production of whiskey. The court held that a riparian owner on the banks of the natural stream is entitled to a natural right to have the stream flow past his/her land without sensible alteration to its character or quality. The distillery was therefore entitled to seek an injunction preventing the discharge of the pit water.

Potential Issues with Riparian Rights

It can be difficult to ascertain ownership of a natural watercourse as they are not often registered at the Land Registry. Another issue to consider is whether the watercourse is culverted – watercourses that are enclosed underground.

As riparian rights are complex, it may be that grants of easements or specific licences are granted – such as special licences for fishing, boating etc. granted by a landowner to an individual which separate granted rights away from the land.


In conclusion, riparian rights play a vital role in shaping the relationship between property owners and water resources, balancing the interests of individuals with the needs of the broader community and the environment. By understanding the principles of riparian rights and fulfilling their obligations as stewards of water resources, riparian landowners can ensure the equitable and sustainable use of water for generations to come.

This blog was written by Rachel Armitage. Based in our Leamington Spa office, Rachel is a Chartered Legal Executive within our Conveyancing Team. Contact her on 01926 887700 or email