Posted On / 20.04.2020

Public Rights of Way and Covid-19 – Can a public right of way be closed?

The Government’s message is clear – stay at home – other than for food, health or work (but only if you cannot work from home).  Maintain a 2 metre distance from other people at all times, do not meet others and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

Since the coronavirus measures have been put in place, there has been a significant increase in walkers across farmland.  Landowners are concerned about the use of public rights of way on their property, in particular, if the public rights of way run through gardens and farmyards increasing the risk of exposure of coronavirus to residents and farm workers.  Defra considers the risk of coronavirus being passed on to others from people using public rights of way as being very low as long as people follow the Government’s instructions to maintain social distancing.

Landowners do not have the legal right to block or obstruct public rights of way. However, due to coronavirus, Defra and Natural England have published guidance covering very limited circumstances where large numbers of people are using public rights of way:

·Temporarily displaying polite notices that encourage users to respect residents and farm workers by following social distancing guidelines and consider using alternative routes that do not pass through gardens and farmyards.  It must be noted that there is no power under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 for landowners to close or obstruct a public right of way.

·Offering an alternative route around gardens and farmyards only where it is safe to do so provided that the original right of way is maintained.

·Tying gates open if it is safe to do so, so that walkers do not need to touch them.

Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW)

· Landowners may be liable for personal injury under section 13 (6C) of CROW if they are reckless or intend to create a risk – for example by offering a dangerous alternative.

· It is an offence under section 14 of CROW to display a notice that contains “any false or misleading information likely to deter the public from exercising” a right of way.

· Under Section 39 of CROW it is an offence to fail to comply with an order of the Magistrate’s Court to remove an obstruction. So a landowner must not obstruct any right of way.

If a landowner offers an alternative route, they must ensure that it is safe to use and that the existing right of way is maintained so that users with differing abilities have a choice.

Any notice must not imply that there is any doubt about the use of the existing right of way. These temporary measures must be lifted as soon as social distancing measures are relaxed.

For more information please contact Tracy Neal  of the Agriculture and Rural Property Team on 01935 846076 or tracy.neal@battens.co.uk. We are able to offer telephone and videoconference meetings to take instructions regarding any legal matter.

More Agriculture and Rural Property articles here.