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In-House Memo (Factual Information)

Can a fixture float?


Like the Abbot of Aberbrothok, in Robert Southey’s poem[1], whose warning bell was cut from the Inchcape Rock, floating aids and maritime guides play an important role in safety at sea. But are they fixtures?


A fixture is an object or chattel (personal property) that is so tightly connected to land that it becomes regarded as part of land, to the extent that title to the fixture is held by the landowner[2]. But what happens when the object is resting on water or is only accessible by water?


Two central principles apply when assessing fixtures: the degree of annexation and the object (or purpose) of annexation[3]. The test for maritime fixtures is no different[4]. However, marine fixtures have created unique dilemmas for the law and mariners alike. For example, a houseboat moored to a pontoon on the bank of the River Thames in London was held not to be a fixture according to the English Court of Appeal[5].  This was because the houseboat could have been removed from its mooring and floated or towed to a different location and so was not considered to be annexed.


In contrast, the Federal Court in Australia found offshore maritime navigational aids to be fixtures[6]. Within a Native Title context, the Federal Court concluded that a number of navigational aids had been constructed as fixtures. Justice Finn was caused to decide upon the status of a number of navigational aids in the Torres Strait. Finn J addressed the ‘degree of fixity’ with which these aids to navigation were attached to their rocks and reefs, which varied from long piles driven into a sand cay to a concrete column fixed to a reef by three steel railway lines driven in at an angle. The function of all the aids, he noted, was manifestly to promote ‘safe passage through several of the sea-channels running in a north-easterly direction through the Strait’. Their purpose, which had been clear since the times of Matthew Flinders, was to avoid the “dangers” (Flinders’ term) of the Torres Strait[7]. This navigational aid case adopts a similar approach to the old English case of Lancaster v Eve [1859] 5 CBNS 717 where a pile in a river driven into the soil beneath the water was considered to be a fixture.


Last year the UK Court of Appeal faced a unique case[8], where two house boats were, at some time after 1963, placed on wooden platforms to support them clear of the tide. They were not secured to the platforms but were connected to mains services – water, gas and electricity – which could be disconnected. The court heard evidence that, due to wear and tear, they now could not be removed without their complete disintegration. Nevertheless Lord Justice Patten found that because they were originally floating on moorings they were undoubtedly chattels at that time and had, over the years, been sold separately from any assignment of tenancy to the supporting platforms. For this reason, according to the court, they were moveable and had not become affixed. Compared to a bungalow, the house boat was found, like a caravan, to be designed to be inherently moveable[9].


S19 of the Lighthouses Act 1911 (Cth) prohibits interfering with, destroying, damaging, obstructing the view of, removing, trespassing on, etc navigational aids. Perhaps these statutory drafters learnt the salutary lesson of Southey’s ‘The Inchcape Rock’, and let sleeping fixtures lie.


Cameron Algie

William Gubbins



[1] Robert Southey, ‘The Inchcape Rock’ at http://www.bellrock.org.uk/misc/misc_poem.htm, accessed 24 January 2014

[2] LexisNexis, Halsbury’s Laws of Australia, (at 05 July 2013) ‘Fixture’, at [245-1195].

[3] Holland v Hodgson [1872] L.R. 7 C.P. 328; in Australia, Belgrave Nominees Pty Ltd v Barlin-Scott Airconditioning (Aust) Pty Ltd [1984] VR 947 at 950 per Kaye J.

[4] Ibid at 768.

[5] Chelsea Yacht & Boat Co Ltd v Pope [2000] 1 WLR 1984.

[6] Akiba v Queensland (No. 2) [2010] FCA 643. This case had serious implications for a native title claim that included the area in which the navigational aid was attached.

[7] Ibid at [880-882]

[8] Tristmire Ltd v Mew [2012] 1 WLR 852.

[9] Interesting issues can also arise relating to other maritime infrastructure such as boat slips, wharves, piers, and landings, the ownership of which nevertheless has regard to the same principles of annexation. Newcomb v. Cty. of Carteret, 207 N.C.App. 527, 541–42, 701 S.E.2d 325, 336 (2010) The Australian legal situation compares with that in the US where riparian rights can permit access to waterfronts and navigable waters: Steve Coggins, Don’t Let Your Boat Slip…”Slip” Away! (September 11, 2013) accessed online at:  http://www.rountreelosee.com/2013/09/11/dont-let-your-boat-slip-slip-away-2/