Footpaths and rights of way

This fact sheet is aimed primarily at people who have problems related to footpaths and rights of way that they regularly use, or which cross their property, and who may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman. Rights of way can include footpaths, bridleways and byways open to all traffic.

I am unhappy about the way the council is dealing with a disputed footpath near my home. Can the Ombudsman help me?

Yes, in some circumstances. If you believe the council has made an error in carrying out its duties to assert and protect the right of the public to use footpaths and that this has caused problems for you, we may be able to investigate your complaint.

But if your complaint concerns one of the following we are unlikely to be able to help.

  • The service of a notice, where there is a right to appeal to the courts. This is because we would generally expect you to use the available remedy of the appeal to the courts if you wished to challenge the council’s actions.
  • A dispute about whether or not a public right of way exists across your land. There is a legal process for determining such disputes and we would generally expect you to pursue the matter through those proceedings.
  • The failure of the council to take action to secure the removal of an obstruction from a footpath or right of way. You can apply to the Magistrates’ Court for an order under s130 of the Highways Act 1980 requiring the council to take action and we might take the view that it would be appropriate for you to pursue that option.
  • Delay by the council in considering a request to add a footpath to the Definitive Map (ie to confirm that the public does have a right to use the footpath). Under rights included in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 you can apply to the Secretary of State for an order requiring a council to deal with your request and we may take the view that this is the most appropriate course of action. 

How do I complain?

You should normally complain to the council first. Councils often have more than one stage in their complaints procedure and you will usually have to complete all stages before we will look at your complaint.

Then, if you are unhappy with the outcome, or the council is taking too long to look into the matter – we think 12 weeks is reasonable – you can complain to us.

You should normally make your complaint to us within 12 months of realising that the council has done something wrong.

For more information on how to complain, visit our contact page or complete an online complaint form.

If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for?

We look at what the council has done, whether there have been any errors or failures and if so how this has affected you.

Some faults we might find are that the council:

  • delayed in completing the necessary legal procedures after a decision had been taken to make an order to divert or to confirm a right of way
  • failed to take account of the existence of footpaths when considering the grant of planning permission
  • failed to follow correct legal procedures when closing a footpath, or
  • delayed giving, or gave incorrect advice in responding to questions about footpaths and rights of way.

What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the council was at fault?

It depends on the fault and what the consequences are for you. We may recommend that the council take action to put things right, for example:

  • reinstate signage for a footpath
  • set a timetable for a decision on the action to be taken in respect of a right of way, or
  • give correct advice on the extent of the council’s powers.

We may also recommend that the council offer you compensation for the time, trouble or expense you were put to in pursuing your complaint or for costs incurred because of the council’s errors.

Where we find fault with the council’s procedures we will often recommend that the council introduces changes so that the same problem does not occur again in the future.

Examples of some complaints we have considered

Mrs C complained that the Council had failed to ensure a local footpath was free from obstructions and had used delay tactics to avoid clearing the footpath, including applying for diversion orders which were never implemented. She had sent a notice under section 130a of the Highways Act 1980 requiring the Council to remove the obstruction. The Council refused to consider the notice, saying it was taking alternative appropriate action. Mrs C said she had suffered injustice because she had not been able to walk the path and had spent a great deal of time fighting the Council. We decided the Council had delayed inexcusably in dealing with the matter and had given incorrect reasons for not considering the notice. But we noted Mrs C could have appealed to the court about the notice, once she received the Council’s response. The Council agreed to apologise and pay Mrs C £250 for her time and trouble. It also agreed to formulate a plan of action to resolve the matter within three months.
Mr X complained that the Council was delaying unreasonably (potentially for as long as 29 years) in complying with the Secretary of State’s direction to make a definitive map modification order (DMMO) on his application for a public right of way. Mr X says the Council’s failure to act, prevented him from using the path and people who were able to give evidence in support of his case could die before the Council considered the matter. We decided the Council was taking too long to deal the case was too long and was causing Mr X an injustice. The Council agreed to apologise to Mr X and pay him £250. It also agreed to review the way it was deciding DMMO applications and update Mr X on its revised timescales when it had done this.

Other sources of information

The Gov.uk website has useful information on public rights of way: www.gov.uk/right-of-way-open-access-land/public-rights-of-way

Institute of Public Rights of Way and Access Management (IPROW). See www.iprow.co.uk

The Ramblers’ Association also has a range of advice and information available: www.ramblers.org.uk

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

February 2020