[UPDATE: on 31 July 2023 the Court of Appeal allowed Dartmoor National Park Authority’s appeal against the judgment considered in this post. It is interesting to note the similarities between the line of reasoning followed by Sir Geoffrey Vos MR at §55-§57 of that judgment and some of the arguments made below. This is a welcome development and it is hoped that the attention brought to the issue of public access to the countryside by this case will result in future reforms in this area.]
“The principal issue in this case is whether section 10(1) of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 (“the 1985 Act”) confers on the public a right not only to walk or ride a horse on the commons but also to camp there overnight.”
That Friday the 13th was indeed unlucky for the wild camping community, if not wider society. For with the handing down of that judgment, the last remaining rights to wild camp without the permission of the landowner in England and Wales were extinguished.
This case, therefore, represents more than just a landowner seeking to prevent campers using their land without permission. Rather it is a further step in the seemingly inexorable privatisation of the English Countryside for the benefit of the few, to the detriment to the many, and with the full-throated support of the law.
In considering this unfortunate development, I will first set out the background to thecase, then examine the reasoning underpinning the judgment. I will then situate this case in the wider context of public access to the countryside, and ask whether and how this public good can be reconciled with the private property rights of landowners in England and Wales.
Note:In Part One, I set out what I considered to be the Government’s rationale in enacting the Coronavirus Act 2020 rather than relying on existing legislation. In a piece for Law Society Gazette Dr Andrew Blick and Prof. Clive Walker have sought to rebut this rationale and argued that the Government should more appropriately have used Civil Contingencies Act 2004.
In Part One, I considered the background to the Coronavirus Act 2020 and some general aspects of the legislation. Here, I focus on some of the substantive provisions of the legislation and briefly explore the role that human rights law has to play in the management of the COVID-19 crisis.
At this point it bears repeating that the UK Government has not derogated from the ECHR under Article 15. Thus, any measures introduced in response to the Coronavirus must be compatible with the UK’s full human rights obligations under the Convention as transposed in to domestic law via the Human Rights Act 1998. Jeremy McBride has produced an excellent piece on the ECHR Blog, in which he analyses the range of various responses to the COVID-19 crisis through the lens of the Convention obligations. Such an exercise is not possible here due to constraints of space. However, towards the end of this piece I will briefly consider the compatibility of the lockdown restrictions on movement with the UK’s ECHR obligations.
At this point, it is almost trite to say that we are living through unprecedented events. The global spread of the Coronavirus pandemic poses serious challenges to society. So far, the global death-toll has exceeded 21,000 and life as we know it in the UK has changed dramatically. In response to this crisis the Government has announced drastic measures in order to curb the spread of the virus and to support those who may be affected. Indeed, it seems that Cicero’s famous injunction to let the welfare of the people be the highest law has gained a new relevance in the age of COVID-19.
As readers of this blog will probably know, a significant plank of the Government’s legislative response is the Coronavirus Act 2020, which received royal assent on 25 March having been fast-tracked through Parliament. This substantial piece of legislation –which consists of 102 Sections, 29 Schedules and runs to just under 360 pages– is intended to deal with the various challenges that may be posed by the Coronavirus epidemic. As a result, its provisions are broad ranging, touching on areas as diverse as powers to disperse gatherings, pensions, sick pay, inquests and investigatory powers to name but a few.
At an inquest, the Coroner must investigate four things: the identity of the deceased and how, when and where they came by their death. Ordinarily, the question ‘how the deceased came by their death’ means ‘by what means’ they came by their death (R v. North Humberside Coroner, ex parte Jamieson  QB 1).
Coroner for the Birmingham Inquests (1974) v. Hambleton & Ors.  EWCA Civ 2081 involved such an inquest. The central question for the Court of Appeal (composed of a panel including the Lord Chief Justice and the Vice-President of the Criminal Division of the Court) was whether, as part of his investigation into the deaths of the 21 victims of the 1974 Birmingham bombings, the Coroner was required to call evidence directed at identifying those responsible for the bombings. The Court of Appeal decided that, in this case, the Coroner was not so obliged.
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