Public rights of way – footpaths, bridleways, and byways – are all ‘highways’ in law. This means they get the same protection from the law as a road does. They have to be kept open, they can’t be obstructed and they have to be usable. The duty to keep them open and usable lies with the local highway authority (the county council, or else the unitary authority where there is no county council).
Most public rights of way probably came into existence just by being used for a long time. Sometimes people suddenly find themselves prevented from using a path which has been used for many years. It’s possible that such a path, on account of the long public use, will have become a public right of way in law.
Paths are meant to be free of obstructions: the right is one of free passage and re-passage, except in places where there is a limitation on it like a stile or gate, where allowed. If you do find a path obstructed there are things you can do. Read our advice on how to get an obstruction removed.
Rights of way are not fixed in position for ever - there are laws which enable councils and central government to alter the network, for example for agricultural reasons.
Since the 1950s, county councils and unitary authorities have been required to keep a record of public rights of way. This is called the definitive map and statement of public rights of way. Where a path is shown on this record, that is conclusive proof of its public status. You have the right to apply for a path to be included on the definitive map and statement – this is the common method of proving that a way is public.
We publish a textbook jointly with the Open Spaces Society called Rights of Way: a guide to law and practice (otherwise known as the 'Blue Book'), which is a respected authority on rights of way law.