It is often said that the registers of common land (and town or village greens) drawn up under the Commons Registration Act 1965 (the 1965 Act) are out-of-date. And so they are: they were, after all, initiated by applications for registration made between 1967 and 1969. While it has remained possible to apply to modify the registers for certain purposes (and there is no charge for doing so), there has been no compulsion to do so, and many changes affecting what is shown in the registers have gone unregistered, leaving the registers an ever less comprehensive record of commons and the rights which are exercisable over them. (What follows refers to the registers of common land, but similar issues can apply to the registers of greens, albeit less frequently a cause for concern.)

Legally, this does not strictly matter. There are nine commons registration authorities pioneering the implementation of Part 1 of the Commons Act 2006 (Part 1), and where steps are being taken to update the registers. Outside these areas, the registers are “conclusive evidence of the matters registered, as at the date of registration (1965 Act, s.10, my italicisation). So, to the extent that the registers are now incomplete or inaccurate, the registers must be read alongside any other evidence of events subsequent to 1969 which affects the veracity of what is shown in them. For example, a commoner (the owner of a right of common) may have entered into a deed with the owner of the common, surrendering the right to the landowner, which has the effect of extinguishing the right for all time. The extinguishment of the right may (and should) be registered (under s.13(a) of the 1965 Act), so as to cancel the registration of the right in the register. But there is no obligation on anyone to do so: indeed, an application for such and similar purposes may be made only by a person having an ‘interest’ in the matter — see r.29 of the Commons General Regulations 1966 (SI 1966/1471) as amended by SI 1968/658 here. To any assertion that the register shows that the right exists, and were conclusively in existence ‘as at the date of registration’, the former commoner, or more likely the common owner, need only produce the deed, to show that the register is out-of-date and, on that matter, what is shown in the register can be left out of the reckoning. That may be the correct position, but it can be very frustrating for those who use the registers and expect them to present a comprehensive picture.

Part 1 seeks to ensure that the 1965 Act registers are brought up-to-date, to rectify the omitted amendments of the last 45 years, and kept that way. It does this, not generally by compelling applications to amend the register, but by inducing them. Where it has been brought into force, in the nine pioneer areas, it does this in several ways:

  • by providing that rights of common which are capable of registration, but are not registered, are extinguished (at the end of an initial transitional period) (para.3 of Sch.3);
  • by providing that various other things affecting what is shown in the registers (such as the creation or extinguishment of rights of common) can have effect only if done, in a prescribed form, by application for registration (ss.6–13) — in effect, by ensuring that these things can no longer be done ‘off register’;
  • by abolishing certain mechanisms by which common law events can affect what is shown in the registers (i.e. the creation of rights of common by prescription, and the extinguishment of rights of common, ss.6 and 13);
  • by re-enacting provision for the conclusiveness of a right of common entered in the register, upon its registration (s.18;
  • by providing that statutory dispositions affecting what is shown in the registers (such as an exchange of land required to facilitate a road scheme across common land) do not operate at law so as to affect the status of the land, nor any rights exercisable over it, until the disposition is registered (r.44(2) of the Commons Registration (England) Regulations 2014, the 2014 Regulations, SI 2014/3038);
  • an exception to the generality of the absence of compulsion, by placing a duty (generally on public authorities) to register the effect of a statutory disposition (s.14 given effect by para.8(2) of Sch.4 to the 2014 Regulations);
  • by providing that other legislation which refers to common land or town or village greens, may be amended by secondary legislation (s.54), so that those references apply only to common land, or greens, which are registered under Part 1 of the 2006 Act — this last power is likely to be exercised only when Part 1 has been applied to the whole of England, the transitional period has expired, and reasonable opportunity has been afforded to apply to amend the register to deregister wrongly registered land under Schedule 2 or section 19.
  • by ensuring that notice of applications or proposals under Part 1 affecting rights exercisable over registered land must be served on those parties who have declared their entitlement to exercise rights of common, and so updated the register to provide a direct connection between the registered right and the commoner entitled to it (para.1(a) of Sch.7 to the 2014 Regulations).

In the last case, such declarations have been facilitated by r.43 of the 2014 Regulations, and may be made so as to address the obvious drawback that the register does not directly identify the owner of a right of common attached to land, but only the land to which the right is attached. The owner or occupier of that land may declare to the registration authority his or her entitlement to exercise the right by virtue of that ownership or occupation, and if the authority is satisfied with the evidence provided, it will modify the registration to show details of the declaration. A declarant is guaranteed to be notified of applications and proposals affecting the land, whereas the difficulty in identifying other commoners from the register, and particular those entitled to dormant rights, means that no such obligation is owed to them.

By these means, the intention is that, subject to full implementation (yet to occur outside the nine pioneer local authority areas) and an initial transitional period, the registers should become, and subsequently remain, up-to-date. It is inevitable that, even then, mistakes will be made, and amendments for which applications should be made to amend the registers will not be made. But, generally, the law will assume, for the first time, that the register is correct, and that the consequences of an oversight will fall on the parties who made the mistake, rather than the world at large which, unsurprisingly, expects the register to be correct.

But I have already alluded to one significant respect in which the registers are bound to disappoint. By and large, the registers will not directly identify those who ‘own’ (technically, those who are entitled to exercise) rights of common, even though the registers will be conclusive about what rights exist. As we have seen, provision for declarations of entitlement to rights of common will help to address that omission. But the omission is itself often a matter for surprise and criticism, and merits some explanation. That will be the subject of a future blog.