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Can you be sued by a river?

A bill passed in New Zealand on 15 March 2017, appears to be a world first.  It deems that New Zealand’s third longest river, the Whanganui River (known by the Maori as Te Awa Tupua) will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.

The new status means if someone abuses, harms or pollutes the river, the river can advocate on its own behalf and bring proceedings itself.

The local Maori iwi (tribe) has fought for over 140 years for the recognition of the river as an ancestor, a living entity which cannot be divided into separate ownership. The river has a special and spiritual importance to the Maori people, who deem it a single living being ‘from the mountains to the sea, incorporating its tributaries and all its physical and metaphysical elements’.

In practice, the river will be represented by two guardians, one from the iwi and one appointed by the government. The guardians will bring to account those who cause environmental damage to the river.

When the law was passed, the New Zealand Minister for the Treaty of Waitangi negotiations, Chris Finlayson said "today brings the longest running litigation in New Zealand's history to an end."  He said "I know some people will say it's pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality, but it's no stranger than family trusts, or companies, or incorporated societies."

Following this precedent, on 20 March 2017 an Indian court ruled that two of the most sacred rivers in India, the Ganges and Yamuna, be accorded the status of living human entities. Making explicit reference to the Whanganui ruling, Judges Rajeev Sharma and Alok Singh declared the Ganges and the Yamuna and their tributaries “legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities.” The court assigned three officials to act as legal custodians to protect and conserve their waters.

Local lawyers hope that the ruling might help fight severe pollution, and the rivers’ defenders will no longer have to prove that river pollution causes harm to another; such pollution will now be a crime against the river itself.

There is a degree of uncertainty surrounding environmental protections that will be in place once the UK had left the European Union.  This approach may be an appropriate way of safeguarding our most valuable natural resources. The concept might be expanded to grant legal status to our national parks, areas of special scientific interest and heritage sites.  Could Stonehenge become a person? Certainly food for thought.

For further information please contact our Environmental and Regulatory team on 01274 377642 or email Craig Burman.

About the Author

Craig Burman


Craig advises on contentious and non-contentious environmental, health and safety and regulatory matters. …

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