Registering Public Rights of Way

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Whilst many of us enjoy walks in the countryside and other rural pursuits, not everyone is aware of the legalities in place over rural land.

We often hear the term ‘public right of way’ to describe the rights that are exercised over farm land and rural areas, but what does this mean for the land-owner?

Public rights of way are routes over private land which the public have a legal right to pass over, and are defined in the Highways Act 1980 as roads, footpaths, bridleways, byways open to all traffic, and restricted byways. They differ by what is allowed to pass over them – e.g. on foot only, on horseback, on a bicycle or with vehicles.

Public rights of way are protected on the same basis in law as public highways, and are recorded by the Local Authority on the ‘Definitive Map’. They exist forever unless the right is legally closed, diverted or extinguished. Any such land owners are under strict duties to ensure that the routes are maintained and accessible to the public as it is a criminal offence to block a public right of way.

Public rights of way over land can be created by undisturbed use for a period of 20 years or more. Once the 20 years’ use has been achieved, the route does not have to be continually used thereafter to remain a public right of way.

Under section 31(6) of the Highways Act 1980 using CA16 statements, land owners are able to confirm existing ways and routes over their land as public rights of way by submitting to the Local Authority plans of their land along with a CA16 declaration confirming whether any other public rights of way have been granted since the date of their statement.

Once this process is completed, it will ‘stop the clock’ on any routes which have not yet attained the minimum 20 years’ use for registration. There is currently a proposed deadline of 1st January 2026 for historic public rights of way to be put on the Definitive Map, and although it has not yet been enacted in statute, it has received clearance from HM Treasury. Any routes not plotted on the Definitive Map by this time will be lost forever, therefore it is important for land owners to submit their CA16 applications soon, in order to avoid the inevitable rush of claims by the public for registration of new rights of way.

It is likely that Local Authorities will become inundated with historic applications as the deadline approaches. In one county, a Local Authority has already had 13 such applications from one individual, which are now causing issues for the 13 land owners affected. If you own land and receive a notice that someone has applied to register a public right of way over your land, please check it with your legal advisor, as it may have implications for your farm insurance and your health and safety position if there is a later claim. If unchallenged, any such claims could potentially devalue farmland.

By using a CA16 the land will not be protected from historic rights of way being claimed, but it will prevent the registration of public rights of way which have not yet achieved the necessary 20 years’ user.

For existing public rights of way, land owners should ensure that they keep the routes in good condition, open and clear, so as to maximise ease of use and safety. In return, the public should not stray from the dedicated routes, damage the land owner’s crops or hedges, and if dog walkers, must ensure that their dogs are kept under control and do not scare or attack any livestock.

Public rights of way are an important and necessary part of rural life, however both the public and the land owner must work together in order for such rights to be properly enjoyed.

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