Everything you need to know about public rights of way

Public footpath sign in green field next to river at TSP Legal, Essex

Public rights of way across the country are essential methods of travel, from public footpaths to cycle paths. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Have you recently found a makeshift wall blocking your regular cut-through, or had someone walk past your kitchen window thinking it was a public footpath? 

There are plenty of legal potholes when it comes to public pathways, and what your rights are to use and cross over land. “Whilst these routes are highly useful to the public, there can be complications that arise due to competing interests between landowners and the public,” shares Benjamin Jerome, solicitor at Thompson Smith and Puxon in Colchester. 

Below, Benjamin and fellow solicitor Fiona Galloway, talk us through how you can protect your property and public rights of way.  

Two girls push their bikes along path in the countryside at TSP Legal, Colchester

Registered public rights of way are legally protected, even if they cut through private land. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Q: What constitutes a public right of way? 

A: The term "public right of way" refers to a specific route across land that the general public is allowed to use all times. There are different types of public right of way which only certain classes of people can use, such as pedestrians, horse riders and motorists; depending on the situation on the ground. Although a public right of way may run through privately owned land, the route is open to everyone – even if not paved or obvious, which can cause confusion. 

Some public rights of way are "adopted", which means they are maintained at the public expense. Unadopted public rights of way must be maintained (and kept open) by the landowner. Even if a public right of way is adopted, part of the subsoil may still be the responsibility of the landowner. 

Benjamin Jerome sat at desk in front of laptop at TSP Legal, Colchester

Benjamin Jerome specialises in Commercial Property, and is well versed in disputes over public rights of way. - Credit: Thompson Smith and Puxon

Q: How can you tell if a specific route is a public right of way? 

A: It can be difficult to determine exactly where each public right of way is located. The local council should have a “definitive” map with each registered route marked on it - for example, blue lines can indicate bridleways (a thoroughfare for pedestrians, horse riders and cyclists), and yellow lines show footpaths. 

However, in practice, local councils do not always have a full map of public rights of way in their area for a number of reasons. This does not mean that the public right to use the given route is no longer there, and a landowner could have a legally enforceable public right of way on their land. 

Most Read

Q: What is the process for dealing with right of way disputes? 

A: There is no set process, as it largely depends on the nature of the specific dispute and the facts on the ground. There are a number of things to work out - determining who owns the land is the usual starting point. Registered deeds should be examined to work out this out, as well as the party responsible for maintenance. You may need to check old title deeds and plans for relevant information. Local knowledge can be useful. 

It would be helpful to involve a solicitor early on. They can examine the title deeds and bring clarity to the situation – calming tensions, setting out the legal position and helping the parties to reach an agreement. 

Fiona Galloway sat in chair smiling at camera at TSP Legal, Essex

Fiona Galloway has resolved a number of neighbour, public right of way and boundary disputes as a member of the Commercial Property team. - Credit: Thompson Smith and Puxon

Q: How can the public protect their right of way? 

A: There is a move, under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000 that any public right of way that existed pre-1949, but was not registered by 1 January 2026, would be extinguished. The government has indicated they will not enforce this deadline but we await further developments in the area - nothing has been finally settled in terms of dates. 

If you come across a locked gate that was previously unlocked, or if signs have recently been put up indicating private land, mention it to the local or parish council. They are the ones with the authority to enforce your public rights of way and make contact with the relevant parties. 

Couple looking at map and smiling in countryside at TSP Legal, Colchester

Consistently using a footpath is one of the best ways to ensure that it remains open to public use. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Q: How can landowners protect their property? 

A: It's often said "once a public right of way, always a public right of way". Generally, once the route has been established, a right of way remains in place unless it is diverted or closed. To do that, you would need to follow the relevant procedures - which can be costly and lengthy, with no guarantee that a diversion or closure will be ordered. 

If you as a landowner want to stop any new rights of way from being claimed on your land, you can file a section 31 statement with the relevant authority. This will acknowledge any existing public rights of way, and prevents new public rights of way from being established on your land. Such statements will need to be renewed every 20 years. 

For more information on the legal status of public rights of way, or to contact a solicitor, visit tsplegal.com or call 01206 574431.