The law on trespass

Private land sign

Have you ever seen a ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’ sign? Luckily, it’s an empty threat at present (except in a few special cases like trespassing on railway land). Trespass is a civil matter, meaning that while a landowner could bring legal action against a walker who was not on a footpath, it’s very unlikely to happen unless some damage was done. This means that taking the wrong route, eating a picnic in a field, having a nap by a hedge and even wild camping are not crimes - at the moment.

In the autumn, the Home Office opened a consultation (until 4 March 2020), about strengthening police powers to deal with unauthorised encampments. This was also included in the Conservative manifesto, along with an intention to ‘criminalise intentional trespass’.

We don’t want to see any changes in the law that might chip away at people’s rights to access and enjoy the countryside.  It’s bad enough coming across intimidating signs, without walkers worrying that they might accidentally commit a crime by diverting round a fallen tree or using a route they honestly believe is a right of way. Being shouted at by a landowner can also spoil a walk, and we are concerned that people might be put off from walking in the countryside if ‘intentional trespass’ becomes a crime.  

Right to protest

A legitimate right to protest could also become a crime – it’s worth remembering that current rights of access to the countryside were built on legitimate protest by previous generations of campaigners.  

The Ramblers has written an open letter to the Home Secretary, asking for an urgent rethink of any criminalisation of intentional trespass, and opposing any measures that would deter people from accessing the outdoors. A total of 16 other outdoor organisations - including the Long Distance Walkers Association, British Canoeing and the BMC - added their signatures to our letter.  

The consultation is aimed at ‘unauthorised encampments’ by travelling communities and giving the police more powers to deal with them. However, three quarters of police forces believe that their current powers in relation to unauthorised encampments are sufficient and proportionate, while 84% are opposed to the criminalisation of unauthorised encampments. The Ramblers doesn’t think that the government has made a compelling case for changing the rules about trespass.

Gemma Cantelo, our head of policy and advocacy, said: ‘We’re worried that these proposals are the thin edge of the wedge, resulting in an erosion of people’s rights to access and enjoy the countryside.  It’s vital that the access rights that the Ramblers and others have fought for over the years are protected.’

The Ramblers responds

Our response to the consultation has gone in. We’ve made it clear that:

  • We oppose the criminalisation of trespass and any measures that deter people from accessing the outdoors.
  • Rules to criminalise trespass should remain limited to very specific circumstances.
  • A compelling case for changing trespass rules has not been made.
  • Walking in the countryside should not put you at risk of committing a crime.
  • The proposals threaten ‘wild’ camping and the right to protest.

The Ramblers will continue to keep a close eye on further government proposals, to protect walkers’ rights, and we’ll be issuing regular updates.

Elaine Webb is local advocacy manager at the Ramblers

Read our position on trespass

Magazine of the Ramblers