30 March 2023
[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.”
This is the beguilingly simple opening to the judgment of Sir Julian Flaux C. in the case of Darwall and Darwall v. Dartmoor National Park Authority  EWHC 35 (Ch), which was handed down on Friday, 13 of January 2023.
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 the case, 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.
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