ACCESS TO THE COUNTRYSIDE

Below are answers to the questions people most often ask about rights of way.

England and Wales: Public Rights of Way

1. What is a right of way? A right of way in the countryside is either a footpath, a bridleway or a byway. On footpaths the public has a right of way on foot only. On bridleways it also has a right of way on horseback and on a pedal cycle. Byways are open to all classes of traffic, including motor vehicles. 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.

2. What are my rights on a public right of way? The public's right is to pass and re-pass 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 or pushchair (on suitable paths), or a dog. However, you should ensure that dogs are under close control.

3. How do I know whether a path is a public right of way or not? The safest evidence is the definitive map of public rights of way. These maps are available for public inspection at county, unitary, district and outer London borough council offices. Some are also available for inspection in libraries and some are sold by the councils concerned. In addition, public rights of way information derived from. them, as amended by subsequent orders, is shown by the Ordnance Survey on its Outdoor Leisure, Explorer and Pathfinder maps (1:25,000) and Landranger maps (1:50,000). But note that many public rights of way are not yet shown on definitive maps and can quite properly be used, and that application may be made to surveying authorities (see Q10) for ways to be added to the definitive map.

4. 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 upwards of 20 years then the owner intends dedication. Most public paths came about this way. But it is not true that a path can cease to be public if it is unused for 20 years (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 the consent of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, or the National Assembly for Wales.

5. Who owns the paths? The surface of the path is for most purposes considered to belong to the highway authority. What this means is that the authority owns the surface of the way and so much of the soil below and the air above as is necessary for the control, protection and maintenance of the highway. The rest normally belongs to the owner of the surrounding land.

6. Which Councils Deal With Paths? The councils to which duties have been given as highway and definitive map surveying authorities are the county, unitary, metropolitan district and London borough councils. Highway authorities have a general duty "to assert and protect the rights of the public to the use and enjoyment" of paths in their area and to "prevent as far as possible the stopping up or obstruction" of such paths. They should therefore deal with any deliberate obstruction such as barbed wire fence or crops across a path. They are also legally responsible for maintaining the surface of the path (including bridges) and keeping it free of overgrowth. Shire district councils are entitled to take over the maintenance of public paths from the county council if they wish and may by agreement take over other responsibilities. Parish councils and community councils also have the power to maintain paths (see the RA leaflet "Paths for People"). Highway authorities have the power to require owners to cut back overgrowing growth from the side of a path.

7. 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 the statement accompanying the definitive map but in many cases the proper width will be a matter of what has been past practice on that particular path. (See also Q15 and Q17 below.) Note the width of the right of way may be greater, or sometimes less, than the width of any track or hard-surfaced strip along the route

8. Are horses allowed on public paths? Riders have a right to use bridleways, as the name implies. Riders have no right to use footpaths, but they often do and are not thereby committing a criminal offence. If use of a footpath by riders becomes a nuisance the county council can make a traffic regulation order forbidding riders to use that particular path.

9. Is it illegal to drive cars or motor cycles on public paths?
Anyone who drives a 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 and only goes on the path to park. The owner of the land, however, can still order vehicles off even within 15 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.

10. What is a road used as a public path (RUPP)? RUPPS, as they are commonly known, are a type of way shown on the definitive map which is usually un-surfaced and may or may not carry vehicular rights. This classification is now in process of abolition and all RUPPS will eventually be reclassified as either footpaths, bridleways or byways open to all traffic.

11. 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.

12. Who is supposed to look after stiles and gates on a path?
Maintaining these is primarily the owner's responsibility, but the highway authority (or the district council if it is maintaining the path) must, in certain cases, contribute 25% of the cost if asked and may contribute more if it wishes. If the landowner fails to keep his stiles and gates in proper repair the authority can, after 14 days' notice, do the job itself and send the bill to the owner.

13. Are all the paths supposed to be signposted?
Highway authorities have a duty to put up signposts at all junctions of footpaths, bridleways and byways with metalled roads. Also parish and community councils can relieve authorities of the obligation for particular paths. Highway authorities also have a duty to waymark paths so far as they consider it appropriate.

14. What is waymarking? Waymarking is a means of indicating the line or direction of a path at points where it may be difficult to follow. The Countryside Agency recommends a standard system of coloured arrows for waymarking - yellow for footpaths, blue for bridleways and red for byways.

15. Is it illegal to plough up or disturb the surface of a path so as to make it inconvenient to use?
No, if the path is a footpath or bridleway running across a field and it is not reasonably convenient to avoid disturbing it; yes, if the path is a byway, or any other footpath or bridleway. However, in the former case, the farmer must make good the surface within 24 hours of the disturbance (two weeks if the disturbance is the first one for a particular crop). A path so restored must be reasonably convenient to use, must have a minimum width of one metre for a footpath and two metres for a bridleway (or the legal width if known), and its line must be clearly apparent on the ground.

16. What happens if a path surface has been disturbed but not restored? A highway authority may serve notice on the occupier and, if necessary, then restore the path itself and send the bill to the occupier. The authority may also prosecute the person responsible for the disturbance.

17. What about crops growing on or over a path? The farmer has a duty to prevent a crop (other than grass) from making the path difficult to find or follow. The minimum widths given in Q15 apply here also, but if the path is a field-edge path they are increased to 1.5 metres for a footpath, three metres 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: it has power to prosecute the farmer or cut the crop and send him the bill.

18. What is an obstruction on a path? Anything which interferes with your right to proceed along it, eg. 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.

19. Can I remove an obstruction to get by? Yes, provided that (a) you are a bona fide traveller on the path and have not gone out for the specific purpose of moving the obstruction, and (b) 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. But report the obstruction to the highway authority and/ or the RA.

20. Can a farmer keep a bull in a field crossed by a public path?
A bull of up to ten months old, yes. Bulls over ten months of a recognized 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 ten months are banned unless accompanied by cows or heifers. If any bulls act in a way which endangers the public, an offence may be committed under health and safety legislation.

21. Can a landowner close or divert a path?
No. Closure and diversion (i.e.. change of a path's route) can only be carried out by local authorities or central government. Under the commonest procedure for closure a county, unitary, district or London borough council is empowered to make an order to close a path if it considers it is no longer needed for public use. A notice that the council has made an order must be published in a local paper and also placed at both ends of the path. It must allow at least 28 days for objections. These must be heard at a public inquiry taken by an inspector from the DETR (or the National Assembly for Wales), or by private hearing, or they may be considered in writing if the objectors agree. Path diversions may not take place if the new path will be substantially less convenient to the public than the existing one, and account must also be taken of the effect the diversion will have on public enjoyment of the way as a whole. Paths may also be closed or diverted under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 "in order to enable development to be carried out in accordance with planning permission". The procedure for these orders, and for diversion orders under the Highways Act, is the same as for closure orders. There are also provisions for highway authorities to apply to magistrates courts for closure or diversion of paths, and for closure and diversion orders to be made in other circumstances, eg. construction of new roads, railways and reservoirs, both on a permanent and temporary basis.

22. What is a misleading notice?
A misleading notice is one calculated to deter you from using a public right of way, for example, a notice saying PRIVATE at the point where a public footpath enters a park. Such notices should be reported immediately to the highway authority. They are illegal on paths shown on the definitive map.

23. What is trespass?
The civil tort of trespass arises from the bare fact of unauthorized entry. However, unless injury to the property can be proven, a landowner could probably only recover nominal damages by suing in such a case. 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. 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. It is an offence to trespass on railway land and also sometimes on military training land.

24. How can I help the RA deal with path problems?
Sadly one in four public paths are blocked. To help tackle the problem you can:
(a) Send full details to the highway authority, and to the RA.
(b) Ask the farmer or landowner concerned to clear the obstruction.
(c) Take part in RA footpath clearance working parties.
(d) If the problems persist, write to your local councillors about them.
(e) Send letters to local newspapers seeking support for any representations you may be making.
(f) If the authority fails to take action, consider complaining to the local ombudsman.

The more path users show their concern for the state of the rights of way network, by complaining about trouble spots, the better.

Please note that the provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act will make changes to rights of way law. Please contact the rights of way policy team at Central Office or visit the RA website for the latest information.