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Don’t steal seashells at the seashore: five beach laws to be aware of this summer

An expert from The University of Law explains the seaside slip-ups to avoid this summer

As the UK heads towards the summer holidays, thousands will be planning trips to the seaside. However, one legal expert from The University of Law (ULaw) has warned beach goers about the seaside activities which could quickly land them in trouble with the law.

Aruna Verma, Moorgate Campus Dean and Associate Professor at ULaw, says: “When the sun does make an appearance in the UK it can be all too easy to get carried away and forget there can be consequences. Of course, there are obvious repercussions for more serious crimes, however there are many lesser-known offences which could easily catch people out on their trip to the seaside.”

Aruna shares her advice on some of the most common seaside activities:

Don’t steal seashells

It’s a seemingly innocent pastime, however taking home seashells or pebbles from the beach could see you landed with a hefty fine if you’re caught.

This is laid out in the Coast Protection Act 1949, which says it’s against the law to remove any natural materials from UK beaches. Although it may seem perfectly okay, and will most likely go unnoticed, if you are caught committing this offence you could be fined up to £1,000.

Can women sunbathe topless?

It may be surprising to know that sunbathing topless isn’t immediately a criminal offence. There are no specific laws that criminalise the act of topless sunbathing, however it is a nuanced point with various exceptions.

Those found to be intentionally exposing their genitals with the aim of causing alarm or distress will be found in breach of section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which is a serious offence.

As breasts aren’t strictly considered to be genitals it might suggest that topless sunbathing in public is fine – although it isn’t quite so simple. If two or more members of the public see you and deem your attempts at an even tan to be causing offence then you could still be prosecuted under the Public Order Act 1986.

The moral of the story: proceed with extreme caution.

Can I be arrested for going to the loo in the sea?

On a similar note to the above, there aren’t strictly any laws that specifically outlaw public urination in the UK. However, that most definitely isn’t to say that this is legal and acceptable.

Penalties for public urination (which includes in the sea) are usually laid out by local authorities and are most likely to involve a Penalty Notice for Disorder – often resulting in a fine.

As with topless sunbathing, however, if you are caught urinating in public you could be found guilty of indecent exposure under The Sexual Offences Act, which could easily result in prison time.

Hole digging and castle building

Perhaps the single most popular seaside activity, it’s rare that someone will go to the beach and not be tempted to dig a hole or build a sandcastle. Although some countries have strangely outlawed sandcastle building[i], the good news is this pastime is perfectly legal here in the UK.

When it comes to digging up holes in the beach, this too is perfectly legal according to UK law. However, it’s important to note that the UK coastguard had a huge drive last year to stress the dangers of digging large holes at the beach, as they can easily cave in and become life threatening.

Barbecuing at the beach

If you’re planning to cook up a storm and have a tipple at the beach, it’s always best to do your research first. Although neither of these things are outright against the law, it depends on your local authority.

Some authorities have set out very specific rules around when and where you may use a barbecue at the beach. In Brighton for example, single use barbecues have been banned since 1st July 2022 due to the risks involved.

The best approach is always to do your research and make sure you’re not breaking any laws before you get started. Local authorities have the power to dish out punishments, which can often mean significant fines.

Aruna continues: “If you do your research, it isn’t too difficult to stay on the right side of the law during a trip to the seaside. However, when the sun is shining and perhaps the drinks are flowing, it can be easy for beachgoers to overstep the mark and very quickly land themselves in hot water. Being aware of what the law says is crucial to ensuring you can stay safe - and legal - in the sun this summertime.”