Posted by: RM | December 27, 2009

Public Rights of Way: Inference of Dedication at Common Law

The Court of Appeal delivered its judgment in Wild v (1) Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs & (2) Dorset County Council [2009] EWCA Civ 1406 just before Christmas. The case concerned a claimed public right of way over land in Dorset. The ownership of the land was never determined in the proceedings although the Appellant, Mr Wild, claimed that he owned the land over which the right was claimed as manorial waste.  There had been previous unsuccessful applications in respect of the claimed way but in 2003 Dorset County Council, the surveying authority, made an order under section 53(2)(b) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 that the path the subject of this litigation be added to the Definitive Map and Statement. This decision was confirmed by an inspector who held a public inquiry into the same. The decision was the subject of judicial review proceedings in the High Court where Keith J refused to quash the order. However, the Court of Appeal reversed the decision of Keith J.

There are two methods by which a new public right of way can come into existence. First, section 31 of the Highways Act 1980 provides for the presumption of dedication of a highway after 20 years use. That provision was held not to apply in this case. In the alternative the common law rules still apply, the statutory rules having been introduced to supplement rather than replace the common law. The main difference being that at common law it is not necessary to prove 20 years use which is a pre-requisite for the operation of the statute. This case was concerned with the application of the common law rules.

Ultimately the Court of Appeal determined that the order for the modification of the Definitive Map and Statement be quashed, the requisite test having not been met. Crucial to this decision was the fact that at a previous public inquiry in 1978 there had been objections to the registration of a bridleway along the same route as the claimed footpath. It is not clear whether either of the parties who made the objections were the owners of the land over which the way passed. However, Scott Baker LJ, giving the judgment of the Court of Appeal in this case, concluded that it was possible they could have been the landowner. If that was the case then the objections would have been sufficient to demonstrate that the landowner had no intention to dedicate the way as a public right of way. Unlike in other contexts in which the rules of prescription operate, in the context of public rights of way (as distinct from say easements or new town or village greens) if the landowner does something which amounts to evidence that he did not intend to dedicate a right of way, that will prove fatal to the claim, even where use is otherwise use ‘as of right’.

The end result is that whilst the possibility that one of the 1978 objections was made by the landowner remains alive, there can be no prospect of a public right of way being established. Of course, if the ownership of the land is determined and it becomes apparent that none of the objections came from the then landowner, the door will be open for modification of the Definitive Map and Statement at some later date.

One interesting aspect of the judgment concerned Scott Baker LJ’s criticism of the reasoning of Keith J at first instance. Keith J had concluded that whilst there had been objections in 1978, one of which may have been an objection by the landowner, any failure thereafter to continue to object to the public’s use of the way “neutralised” the effect of the objection made at the 1978 inquiry as far as any inference of dedication was concerned. Such failure to take active steps to prevent continuing user might well be insufficient to render user vi and, therefore, no longer use as of right, which would be insufficient to prevent a prescriptive claim succeeding in the context of a private right of way or new green claim. However, it is the need to infer dedication of the public right of way which enables any expression of contrary intention to have such a dramatic effect on the potential success of a prescriptive claim where public rights of way are concerned.

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