The value of riparian areas has long been recognised due to their contribution in supporting wildlife diversity and their capacity to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services. Their multiple uses (e.g. flood prevention, biodiversity, pollutant attenuation) combined with an inconsistent use of terminology (e.g. river bank, floodplain, wetland, buffer strip), however, has led to the development of fragmented policies associated with riparian areas. This review brings together current EU and UK legislation alongside research publications focused on riparian areas. We critically evaluate the current legislative framework relating to riparian areas and identify key scientific knowledge gaps which need to be addressed to support future decision-making. Our findings revealed several major problems associated with riparian policy and management, including: (i) the fragmented nature of legislation concerning riparian areas; (ii) the presence of redundant policy instruments, (iii) a lack of practical objectives, (iv) contradictory measures, and (v) unachievable targets. Further, our results suggest that most research is focused on agricultural systems and single ecosystem attributes or functions, rather than supporting an ecosystem-service approach that is widely aspired to in policy statements. We recommend that future research could better support riparian protection policies by focusing less on what the different ecosystems ‘are’ and more on what they can ‘offer’ by way of multiple benefits.