Cirencester Ramblers

What are my rights on a public right of way?

Your legal right is to pass and repass along the way’, you may stop to rest or admire the view, or to consume refreshments, providing you stay on the path and do not cause an obstruction. You can also take with you a ‘natural accompaniment which includes a pram, pushchair or wheelchair (though you may find the surface of the path is not always suitable), or a dog. However, you should ensure that dogs are under close control. Note that there is no requirement for stiles to be suitable for use by dogs.

How do I know whether a path is a public right of way or not?

The safest evidence is the official definitive map’ of public rights of way. These maps are available for public inspection at the offices of local surveying authorities (see Local Authorities). In addition, public rights of way information derived from them is shown by the OS on its Explorer and Landranger maps.

Some rights of way are not yet shown on definitive maps. These can quite properly be used, and application may be made to surveying authorities for them to be added to the map. The inner London boroughs are not required to produce definitive maps, though this does not mean there are no rights of way in inner London.

How does a path become public?

In legal theory most paths become rights of way because the owner dedicates’ them to public use. In fact very few paths have been formally dedicated, but the law assumes that if the public uses a path without interference for some period of time — set by statute at 20 years — then the owner had intended to dedicate it as a right of way.

A public path that has been unused for 20 years does not cease to be public (except in Scotland). The legal maxim is ‘once a highway, always a highway’.

Paths can also be created by agreement between local authorities and owners or by compulsory order, subject, in the case of objection, to confirmation by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or the National Assembly for Wales.

Can a landowner put up new gates and stiles where none exist presently?

No. Not without seeking and getting permission from the highway authority and then complying with any conditions to that permission. Maintaining stiles and gates is primarily the owner’s responsibility, but the highway authority must contribute 25% of the cost if asked and may contribute more if it wishes. If stiles and gates are not kept in proper repair the authority can, after 14 days’ notice, do the job itself and send the bill to the owner.

How wide should a path be?

The path should be whatever width was dedicated for public use. This width may have arisen through usage, or by formal agreement, or by order, for example if the path has been diverted. The width may be recorded in a statement accompanying the definitive map but in many cases the proper width will be a matter of past practice on that particular path. 

Is it illegal to plough up or disturb the surface of a path so as to make it inconvenient to use?

Yes, except where the path is a footpath or bridleway that runs across a field (as opposed to alongside a field edge). In this case the landowner can plough or otherwise disturb the path surface provided it is not reasonably convenient to avoid doing so. The path must be restored within 24 hours of the disturbance, or within two weeks if this is the first such disturbance for a particular crop. The restored path must be reasonably convenient to use, have a minimum width of 1m for a footpath or 2m for a bridleway, or the legal width (see earlier) if known, and its line must be clearly apparent on the ground.

What about crops growing on or over a path?

The landowner has a duty to prevent a crop (other than grass) from making the path difficult to find or follow. The minimum widths given earlier apply here also, but if the path is a field-edge path they are increased to I .5m for a footpath, 3m for a bridleway. You have every right to walk through crops growing on or over a path, but stick as close as you can to its correct line. Report the problem to the highway authority (see Local Authorities): it has power to prosecute the landowner or cut the crop and send the owner the bill.

Can a farmer keep a bull in a field crossed by a public path?

Only a bull of up to 10 months in age. Bulls over 10 months of a recognised dairy breed (Ayrshire, British Friesian, British Holstein, Dairy Shorthorn, Guernsey, Jersey and Kerry) are banned from fields crossed by public paths under all circumstances. All other bulls over 10 months are banned unless accompanied by cows or heifers. If any bulls act in a way that endangers the public, an offence may have been committed under health and safety legislation.

What is an obstruction on a path?

Anything that interferes with your right to use it, for example a barbed wire fence across the path or a heap of manure dumped on it. Dense undergrowth is not normally treated as an obstruction but is dealt with under path maintenance. Highway authorities have a duty ‘to prevent as far as possible the stopping up or obstruction’ of paths.

Can I remove an obstruction to get by?

Yes, provided that you are a bona fide traveller on the path and have not gone out for the specific purpose of moving the obstruction, and that you remove only as much as is necessary to get through. If you can easily go round the obstruction without causing any damage, then you should do so.

Are horses allowed on public paths?

Horse riders have a right to use bridleways and byways. They have no right to use footpaths, and if they do they are committing a trespass against the owner of the land, unless the use is by permission. If use of a footpath by riders becomes a nuisance the local authority can ban them with a traffic regulation order or by-law. This makes such use a criminal offence rather than an act of trespass.

Are pedal cyclists allowed on public paths?

Pedal cyclists have a right to use bridleways and byways, but on bridleways they must give way to walkers and riders. Like horse riders, they have no right to use footpaths and if they do so they are committing a trespass against the owner of the land, unless use is by permission. As with horse-riding (see above), use of any right of way by cyclists can be controlled by traffic regulation orders and by-laws imposed by local authorities. Infringement of by-laws o orders is a criminal offence. Under the Highways Act 1835 it is an offence to ride a bicycle on the pavement at the side of a road, and under the Fixed Penalty Offences Order 1999 a person who rides on a pavement can be fined on the spot by a police officer.

Is it illegal to drive cars or motorcycles on public paths?

Anyone who drives a motor vehicle on a footpath or bridleway without permission is committing an offence. This does not apply if the driver stays within 15 yards of the road, only goes on the path to park and does not obstruct the right of passage. The owner of the land, however, can still order vehicles off even within I 5 yards from the road. Races or speed trials on paths are forbidden. Permission for other types of trials on paths may be sought from the local authority, if the landowner consents.

What is trespass?

A person who strays from a right of way, or uses it other than for ‘passing and repassing’ commits trespass against the landowner.  In most cases, trespass is a civil rather than a criminal matter. A landowner may use ‘reasonable force’ to compel a trespasser to leave, but not more than is reasonably necessary. Unless injury to the property can be proven, a landowner could probably only recover nominal damages by suing for trespass. But of course you might have to meet the landowner’s legal costs. Thus a notice saying ‘Trespassers will be Prosecuted’, aimed for instance at keeping you off a private drive, is usually meaningless. Criminal prosecution could only arise if you trespass and damage property. However, under public order law, trespassing with an intention to reside may be a criminal offence under some circumstances.

What is a Right of Way

It is a path that anyone has the legal right to use on foot, and sometimes using other modes of transport.

Public footpaths are open only to walkers, and may be waymarked with yellow arrows.

Public bridleways are open to walkers, horse riders and pedal cyclists, and may be waymarked with blue arrows.

Byways Open to All Traffic (BOATs) are open to all traffic including motor vehicles, although they may not be maintained to the same standard as ordinary roads and may be waymarked with red arrows.

Legally, a public right of way is part of the Queen’s highway and subject to the same protection in law as all other highways, including trunk roads.