Right to Swim Campaign

Open water swimming enthusiasts are angry that they are still being denied access to some of the country’s most beautiful lakes, rivers and ponds because landowners fear legal action, or because of what swimmers regard as excessive health and safety concerns. Only 2 per cent of England’s riverbanks are accessible to swimmers.

A campaign led by the Outdoor Swimming Society and a leading commercial law firm will begin in Jan 2009 with the aim of clarifying and publicising the law regarding outdoor swimming. The campaigners also hope to encourage landowners to open up more of their rivers and lakes for swimming by removing their liability in case of accidents.

Kate Rew, founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society, said that the situation was so bad that people assumed it was illegal to swim anywhere other than in a swimming pool or the sea.

Serpentine Swim
Serpentine Swim

“People feel they need permission to go swimming, and landowners think they are going to be sued if there is an accident so put up ‘no swimming’ signs in rivers and lakes which are perfectly safe for swimming,” she said.

“There is a culture of illegality about swimming outdoors which puts people off and is a tremendous waste of a great natural resource.”

Large landowners, such as the National Trust and local authorities, will be approached first, and urged to make clear where people can swim, in the same way that they make clear where people can walk or cycle. In many cases, no mention is made of swimming, leading to an assumption that it is prohibited.

The City law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner is to clarify the legal situation for outdoor swimming. Nathan Willmott, the partner who is leading the work, said that the existing law was supportive of the activity.

Swimming is allowed on all navigable rivers, but this right is ignored widely, in particular by fisherman and lock-keepers who regularly order swimmers out of the water. Ancient bylaws also make clear that if, historically, people have always swum in a lake or river, they have a right to continue to do so.

To encourage landowners to allow people to swim, the Outdoor Swimming Society and Berwin Leighton Paisner intend to draw up a pro forma letter making it clear that landowners have no legal liability for people who swim on their property.

Campaigners hope this will lead to a revival of river swimming clubs.

Eventually, the Outdoor Swimming Society hopes that the law will change to extend the “right to roam” to swimming, as is the case in Scotland. The right to swim was enshrined in law north of the Border in the 2003 Land Reform Act.

Ms Rew said that she did not expect the law to change until after the London Olympics. “But a lot can be done in the meantime by making clear what the current law is and reassuring landowners they will not end up in court by opening up their lakes and rivers,” she added.

Mr Willmott said that two recent cases showed the courts assumed that responsibility lay with swimmers, not landowners. In 2001 compensation awarded against the National Trust after a man drowned in a pond was overturned by the Appeal Court, which concluded that the swimmer should have known of the obvious dangers of swimming in a pond.

In 2003 the House of Lords ruled that a man who injured himself by diving into a shallow pond was responsible for his own actions.

[extract The Times]