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Richard Spector: “Public right of way disputes make mess of countryside”

While not everyone appreciates a stroller walking through their back garden on a Sunday afternoon, sometimes it’s the reality of country living. But as Managing Partner Richard Spector discusses, public rights of way can often lead to contentious debate and expensive litigation.

New research, published by the Telegraph, shows that councils are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds investigating claims by ramblers for public footpaths to be officially recognised.

Many of these footpaths are found on private property, but have been “lost” for decades and now disguised as muddy tracks and overgrown passageways, or hidden behind sealed gates and gardens.

Now, the Government has introduced a 2026 cut-off date to record historic routes, which should provide certainty to both homeowners and country walkers.

The system for recognition, however, has come under attack by the CLA – the membership organisation for owners of land, property and business in rural England and Wales. Under current rules, “lost paths” can be claimed on the basis of historical evidence and listed as a public right of way.

New figures show that Essex County Council spent some £310,000 on investigation claims for public footpaths over the last five years, and a further £40,000 defending decisions after they had been challenged.

Likewise, Kent County Council says it had spent an estimated £32,000 a year handling right of way claims, but a large backlog of applications have yet to be reviewed by claims officers.

The Local Government Association said: “Councils, who are facing an overall £5.8 billion funding gap by 2020, have a responsibility to deal with and resolve disputes, of which determining who has right of way on a path is just one example.

“It is crucial that councils are resourced to handle all of these matters, as only with adequate funding can councils deliver for their communities.”

However, homeowners who are handed a judgment in the favour of the public are forced to fight costly legal action, or back down altogether.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recently announced that it would rework the system to the benefit of householders.

“We are working to implement the rights of way reforms package to make it easier for householders to divert rights of way without unduly affecting walkers’ enjoyment of the countryside,” it said.

“Measures will include improvements to how pathways are recorded to create a clearer understanding of accessible routes across the country.”

About Richard Spector: Managing Partner Richard specialises in property and commercial litigation. Richard has acted in a number of high profile cases and was heavily involved in the litigation that arose from the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Richard has been involved in a number of cross-border litigation cases and recently acted successfully for the Claimants in Harlequin Property (SVG) Ltd & Anr v Wilkins Kennedy, listed in the Lawyer’s top 20 cases of 2016.

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ELS Legal is an international law firm based in London with more than 50 partner offices across the world. As part of the Cathay Associates global legal network, we are the first choice law firm for a number of British businesses and overseas clients.

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