Understanding trespass as a walker
(Advice relevant to England and Wales only. Find information about access rights in Scotland)
Trespass and your legal rights as a walker
In England and Wales, we enjoy a world-renowned network of public rights of way on which we all have a right to walk. We can also go off the beaten track, to walk freely on open access land. In Scotland you can walk on nearly all land, provided you behave responsibly, thanks to Scotland’s world-class access rights.
But when walking outside of these defined areas, the risk of trespass can be a concern to walkers.
What is trespass?
Trespass is entering, or making use of, private land without the legal right or permission to do so. In most cases trespass is a civil matter between individuals and not a criminal offence.
What could happen if I trespass?
Landowners sometimes display signs stating that “trespassers will be prosecuted”. You may meet a landowner who threatens to call the police or sue you.
Mostly these threats are meaningless. The police know that trespass (in most cases) is not a criminal offence. The police will not force you to leave private land unless you are causing a disturbance, committing a crime, or have entered the land with the intention of occupying it.
In theory a landowner could sue you in the civil courts for trespass. However, this is extremely rare and unless you damaged property through your trespass a court is unlikely to award any significant damages against you.
What if I think I am on a public right of way?
If you have good reason to believe you are on a public right of way and a landowner accuses you of trespass, you can politely but firmly assert your right to use the public right of way.
We’ve got more information on Where You Can Walk in England and Wales without trespassing.
Can I be forced to leave land I am trespassing on?
If you are trespassing and the landowner wants you to leave, they must first ask you to leave. If you refuse, they are permitted to use “reasonable force” to make you leave.
Circumstances when trespass a is a criminal offence
Trespassing on railway lines is illegal and could be very dangerous.
Additionally, under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, it is illegal to trespass on:
some crown land such as Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Sandringham House.
parliamentary and government sites such as the Palace of Westminster, Thames House and the National Assembly for Wales.
Ministry of Defence sites designated under the 2005 Act.
All licensed nuclear sites.
Our advice on what landowners can and can’t ask of you, plus what to do if you have a problem with a landowner.
Unrecorded paths are vulnerable to development and unresolved problems. It is important they are claimed and get the protection they are entitled to.
Not all paths are public rights of way. Here’s our guidance on what to do if there’s a problem on a path and it isn’t a public right of way.