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Legal lounge: your right of way

May 21 2009
Wow can you tell whether you can legally use a path? Ever thought of what the consequences would be if someone told you that you were not entitled to walk down certain streets in London? Odd, wouldn't you think? However, it is not as far-fetched as it may seem, as the laws relating to right to roam apply in cities as they do in the countryside. Here are a few key facts on the laws governing where you can, and cannot, walk in the UK: First, people sometimes ask about the use of metal studs (usually brass or stainless steel) on pavements marking out an area. That is precisely what they are: boundary markers. They usually demarcate an area defined by the deeds of a building that has been rebuilt in its past within its previous boundaries, and a plaque is usually nearby explaining the ownership of the area. Sometimes they are used to mark areas of business, say for a street cafe or public house with outside seating, but the same law always applies as if you where anywhere else in public. A highway has a distinct meaning in English law. It is a way over which the public has "the right to pass and repass as of right". The term highway embraces footpaths, bridleways and driftways. Confused yet? Well, try to remember the following when crossing the many alleys, avenues, closes, corridors, gaps, lanes, parks, passages, pathways, roads, thoroughfares, tunnels and ways of London: a right of way is a path that anyone has the legal right to use on foot, and sometimes using transport. However, public footpaths are only open to walkers; public bridleways are open to walkers, horse-riders and pedal cyclists; and byways open to all traffic are open to all classes of traffic, including motor vehicles. Legally, a public right of way is part of the 'Queen's highway' and therefore subject to the same protection in law as all other highways. For example: you may stop on it to rest or admire the view, or to consume refreshments, providing you stay on the path and do not cause an obstruction; or, you can also take with you a 'natural accompaniment', which includes prams, pushchairs, bathchairs and dogs. So, how can you tell whether a path is a public right of way or not? The surest method is the use of a 'definitive map' of public rights of way. These maps are available for public inspection at the offices of local highway authority, some libraries and for sale from some councils. Just remember that not all footpaths are rights of way. 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 (look out for these next to street signs, particularly in historic passages and alleyways). 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, which has 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 will, when it is fully implemented, provide a new form of legal protection for the public access to open countryside and common land in addition to the existing provisions for rights of way.
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