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Basics of footpath law
This page gives a summary of the law on public rights of way in England and Wales, with some notes about Scotland where the legal situation is very different. If you need more detailed information please see our Rights of Way Advice Notes.
For details of how to report a path problem you have encountered, or to get involved in one of our national campaigns please see our Take Action! page.
The definitive reference guide to footpath law in England and Wales is Rights of Way: a guide to law and practice, otherwise known as 'The Blue Book' and available from Cordee. See here for more information.
1. What is a right of way?
A right of way 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
Public bridleways are open to walkers, horse-riders and pedal cyclists
Restricted byways are open to walkers, horse-riders, and drivers/riders of non-mechanically propelled vehicles (such as horse-drawn carriages and pedal cycles)
Byways Open to All Traffic (BOATs) are open to all classes of traffic including motor vehicles, though they may not be maintained to the same standard as ordinary roads.
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?
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, or pushchair. You can also legally take a manual or powered wheelchair (mobility scooter) provided you follow the regulations for taking these vehicles on ordinary roads. However there is no guarantee that the surface of the path will be suitable for pushchairs and wheelchairs
You can take a dog with you, but you must ensure it is under close control. Note that there is no requirement for stiles to be suitable for use by dogs.
3. 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 Q7). Some are also available 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 (see Q23), is shown by the Ordnance Survey 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.
4. Are all footpaths rights of way?
No. There are many paths that the public is able to use but that are not legally rights of way and do not enjoy the same protection.
Paths crossing public parks and open spaces, commons and other sites to which the public has formal or de facto access may not necessarily be rights of way, though some of them are.
Other paths, known as permissive routes, are open to the public because the owner has given permission for them to be used: often there is a notice on the path making clear the owner has no intention of dedicating the path as a right of way, and reserving the right to withdraw the permission. These paths are sometimes closed for one day a year, with a view to preventing claims that they are rights of way.
Towpaths, paths across land owned by organisations such as the Forestry Commission and National Trust who have a policy of providing access, and off-road multi-user routes such as those created as part of the Sustrans National Cycle Network, are available for public use but may not be rights of way.
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 provides a right of access to mapped areas of mountain, moor land, down land, heath land and registered common land be it on tracks and paths or off them. For more information on the ‘Freedom to Roam’ provisions of the Act, see our Freedom to Roam section.
5. 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 possibly 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.
6. Who owns the paths?
The surface of the path is for most purposes considered to belong to the highway authority (see Q7). 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.
7. Which councils are responsible for paths?
The council that has principal responsibility for rights of way in a particular area, known as the highway authority, is either
• the county council
• the unitary authority, or
• the London or metropolitan borough council
These councils are also surveying authorities, which have the duty to prepare and maintain the definitive map (except in inner London; see also Q3).
The highway authorities may sometimes assign some of their responsibilities to other authorities. District councils may, by agreement, take over path maintenance and other duties from county councils. Parish and community councils also have the power to maintain paths (see our leaflet Paths for People). In National parks, the national park authority sometimes takes over some or all of the responsibilities for rights of way.
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. They are legally responsible for maintaining the surface of the path, including bridges, and keeping it free of overgrowth. They have the power to require owners to cut back overhanging growth from the side of a path.
National park authorities
8. 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 (see Q3) but in many cases the proper width will be a matter of past practice on that particular path (see also Q17 and Q19). Note the width of the right of way itself may be greater, or sometimes less, than the width of any track or hard-surfaced strip along the route.
9. Are horses allowed on public paths?
Horse riders have a right to use bridleways, restricted byways and byways open to all traffic. 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 (see Q25). If use of a footpath by riders becomes a nuisance the local authority (see Q7) can ban them with a traffic regulation order. This makes such use a criminal offence rather than an act of trespass.
10. Are pedal cyclists allowed on public paths?
Pedal cyclists have a right to use bridleways, restricted byways and byways open to all traffic, 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 (see Q25). As with horse-riding (see Q9), use of any right of way by cyclists can be controlled by traffic regulation orders and byelaws imposed by local authorities. Infringement of byelaws or 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.
11. Is it illegal to drive cars or motorcycles on public paths?
Anyone who drives a motor vehicle on a footpath, bridleway or restricted byway 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 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.
12. Are all paths supposed to be signposted?
Highway authorities (see Q7) have a duty to put up signposts at all junctions of footpaths, bridleways and byways with metalled roads. The signs must show whether the path is a footpath, bridleway or byway and may also show other information such as destination and distance.
Highway authorities also have a duty to waymark paths along the route so far as they consider it appropriate (see Q13).
13. What is waymarking?
Waymarking is a means of indicating the line or direction of a path away from metalled roads at points where it may be difficult to follow. In Britain it is normally done with arrow markings on gates, stiles and posts. Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) recommend a standard system of colour-coded arrows - yellow for footpaths, blue for bridleways, purple for restricted byways, and red for byways open to all traffic.
Waymarking is also used to indicate specially promoted routes like long distance paths, circular walks, nature trails and so on. Where these routes follow public rights of way, the route name or logo is often used in addition to or in combination with the standard waymark.
14. Are paths numbered?
Yes, on the definitive maps (see Q3). Sometimes you will also see these numbers used on signs and waymarks. Different local authorities use different systems of numbering, and paths are often numbered on a parish or community basis, so path numbers are not very useful as an aid to navigation, only as a means of referring to an individual path for legal purposes.
15. Can a landowner put up new gates and stiles where none exist presently?
No. Not without seeking and getting permission from the highway authority (see Q7) in circumstances where a stile or gate is necessary to prevent the movement of animals and then complying with any conditions to that permission.
16. 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; see also Q7) must, in certain cases, 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.
17. Is it illegal to plough up or disturb the surface of a path so as to make it inconvenient to use?
Yes, unless the path is a footpath or bridleway running across a field as opposed to running alongside the field boundary. 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 if known, and its line must be clearly apparent on the ground.
18. What happens if a path surface has been disturbed but not restored?
A highway authority (see Q7) 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.
19. 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 in Q17 apply here also, but if the path is a field-edge path they are increased to 1.5m 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: it has power to prosecute the landowner or cut the crop and send the owner the bill.
20. What is an obstruction on a path?
Anything which 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 (see Q7).
Highway authorities have a duty “to prevent as far as possible the stopping up or obstruction” of paths.
21. 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. But report the obstruction to the highway authority (see Q7), and/or the RA: ask for our free report form, or use the form on our website.
22. 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 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 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.
23. Can a landowner close or divert a path?
No. Closure and diversion - that is, a change to a path’s route - can only be carried out by local authorities or central government.
Path closures. Under the most common procedure a highway authority (see Q7) can make an order to close a path if it considers the path is no longer needed for public use. A notice must be published in a local paper and also placed at both ends of the path. At least 28 days must be allowed for objections. These must be heard at a public inquiry taken by an inspector from the Planning Inspectorate, or by hearing (less formal than an inquiry), or they may be considered in writing if the objectors agree.
Path diversions. These may not take place if the new route 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 path as a whole. The procedure is the same as for closure orders.
Paths may also be closed or diverted “in order to enable development to be carried out in accordance with planning permission”. There are also provisions for highway authorities to apply to magistrates courts for closure or diversion of paths, and for orders to be made in other circumstances such as the construction of new roads, railways and reservoirs, both on a permanent and temporary basis. Notice of temporary orders must be given on site; however there is no specified procedure for objections.
If you have any doubts about the legality of a change to a path, contact the highway authority.
24. What is a misleading notice?
This is a notice calculated to deter you from using a public right of way, for example, a notice saying PRIVATE at the point where a path enters a park. Such notices should be reported immediately to the highway authority. They are illegal on paths shown on the definitive map (see Q3).
25. What is trespass?
A person who strays from a right of way, or uses it other than for passing and repassing (see Q1) 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. It is also a criminal offence to trespass on railway land and sometimes on military training land.
26. Are there rights of way in Scotland?
Yes, but they are less extensive than in England and Wales because there has been a tradition of access to land. Statutory rights of access to most land and water have now been established through the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, and guidance on exercising these rights responsibly is given in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. The rights apply to cyclists, horseriders and canoeists as well as walkers.
There is no legal obligation on local authorities to record the rights of way that do exist and so they don’t appear as such on Ordnance Survey maps. However, paths and tracks are shown on these maps as geographical features and you have a right to walk on most of these. The organisation known as ScotWays keeps a catalogue of rights of way, signs many of them and maps and describes the major rural routes in its publication “Scottish Hill Tracks”.
Scottish local authorities have new duties and powers to develop Core Path Plans to form a framework for local path networks. These paths will give local access opportunities and link communities. They have until February 2008 to produce plans for these paths. Core paths will eventually appear on OS Explorer Maps.
27. How can I help the Ramblers' Association deal with path problems?
• Send full details to the highway authority (see Q7), and to the RA (use our free report forms or our online version).
• Ask the farmer or landowner concerned to clear the obstruction.
• Take part in RA footpath clearance working parties.
• If the problems persist, write to your local councillors about them.
• Send letters to local newspapers seeking support for any representations you may be making.
• If the authority fails to take action, consider complaining to the local government ombudsman for England, Wales or Scotland.
Information courtesy of the Ramblers