The decades-long dispute over cockle-fishing rights in Hunstanton has once again returned to Appeals Court in London.
The Le Strange family, as Lords of the Manor of Snettisham, have for centuries enjoyed exclusive fishing rights over parts of The Wash that lap up on the shore of their landed estate.
But the existence of the noble family’s “private fishery” has long been a contentious issue among fishermen who are forbidden to cast their nets without permission.
And throughout the summer of 2007 several local fishermen registered their protest in the forbidden waters, provoking local fisherman, John Loose, whose family have for generations operated the private fishery as tenants of the Le Strange estate.
John and Stephen Williamson, father and son directors of Lynn Shellfish, and other fishermen, “decided to make a public stand in defence of what they regarded as their historic rights” and were accused of sailing into the private fishing ground.
Mr Loose, whose grandfather was tenant of the private fishery before him, sent out his own boats and his three seagoing sons, Peter, David and Timothy, to track the vessels to identify them.
The Williamsons, their company and three other fishermen – Martin Garnett, Jason Leman and Eric Oughton – all either denied that they were fishing when observed or insisted that they were simply passing by the private area.
At a High Court hearing in April last year Judge Sir William Blackburne found that 13 unauthorised fishing boats had strayed into the private fishing zone between July to September 2007.
He said that “they were not simply there for the fun of it but were there to fish for cockles and were successful in their search for them”.
The judge decided that the fishermen had trespassed on the exclusive fishery, and ordered them to pay Mr Loose damages, yet to be assessed.
Lawyers for the fishermen are now challenging the High Court ruling, with their QC, Guy Fetherstonhaugh, claiming the judge’s approach flew in the face of “common sense or fairness”.
The appeal focuses on the judge’s decision about the location of the seaward boundary of the private fishery.
The QC argued that the effect of Sir William Blackburne’s ruling was to “recognise the existence of a private right to fish with an infinitely flexible seaward border – capable of extending in a band across, at least, the whole of The Wash”.
Mr Featherstonhaugh said: “Such a far-reaching result is unsupported either by any known doctrine – or by authority – or by common sense or fairness.”
Lords Justice Moore-Bick, Pitchford and Kitchin are expected to reserve their decision.