'Social distancing' and walkers on your land


23 March 2020

As we have seen at the weekend, the public are taking to the outdoors for both exercise and socialising, with enormous pressure being placed on some venues. While private destinations can choose to close if demand becomes too high for them to cope, it requires a legal event to close the public access rights that exist across England.

These include public rights of way, town or village greens, commons, public access land (often known to the public as where they have ‘the right to roam’) and, where it is complete, the coastal path. In addition there are permissive path schemes, such as those which serve to meet a specific local need, like providing a safe off road route to a school or village hall.

Public rights of way can be seen as the backbone of all public access to the countryside, whether they comprise the daily dog walkers’ route around the village or form part of a longer – perhaps national – linear trail. In each case access can be across land in private ownership and a plethora of legal complexities defines who can go exactly where and to do what – and who is liable if things go wrong. It is surprising how the public can think that 'the right to roam' means they can go on to farmland, and now, with potentially new walkers in the countryside, this is an issue to flag up for landowners.

While it may well not be the time to be verbally challenging anyone new to walking and accidentally straying off a public footpath, it still makes sense to protect your land. Consider putting up extra notices and signing to make it clear where walkers can and cannot go.

Remember also that informal use of routes by the public can eventually lead to new public rights of way. The burden is on the landowner to show that they did not intend to dedicate a route. If you have been meaning to put in place the statutory protection available under s31.6 of the Highways Act 1980, perhaps now there is the additional time and incentive to do so. Please contact us for more details and we'd be pleased to discuss it with you. 

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at March 2020.

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