This article was first published in Waymark, Winter 2018–19 (£, vol 31/3), the journal of the Institute of Public Rights of Way and Access Management, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the then editor. It was prepared by me for and on behalf of the Open Spaces Society. The version here incorporates amendments to the original article in the light of subsequent correspondence — I’m grateful to those who have highlighted any shortcomings. The article refers to the current law in England, but while the relevant provisions of the Deregulation Act 2015 do not extend to Wales, I believe the present position broadly to be the same in Wales.

An application for a definitive map modification order to record this way, at Dane Hill, near Palmstead, Kent, was registered within one week, prior to the application being notified. Not all surveying authorities are willing to register prior to notification.

The promise (if that is the right word) of the reforms to rights of way contained in the Deregulation Act 2015 (the 2015 Act: ss.20–26) appears like a mirage — always shimmering on the horizon, but never quite within reach. So the news, announced in autumn 2018 by Defra, that implementation has been put back a further six months, and now cannot be sooner than late 2019 (but don’t bet on that target), means that we must live with existing systems for recording rights of way for at least another year, and perhaps a good deal longer. And as rights of way user bodies begin to shift into a higher gear on promoting and co-ordinating research into historical rights of way, and volunteers (and in the case of the BHS, professional contractors under its Project 2026) raise the rate of application for definitive map modification orders (DMMOs) under s.53(5) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (the 1981 Act), the operation of the existing legislation for handling such applications deserves continuing scrutiny. Not just because surveying authorities — at least in some parts of the country — are now receiving considerable numbers of applications for historical routes, but because proposed transitional arrangements under the 2015 Act will rely on the correct processing of applications by the authority to which they are made.

The 2015 Act, taken with Part II of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, will — if brought into force — extinguish historical (i.e. pre-1949 in origin) footpaths and bridleways if they are not recorded on the definitive map and statement by the ‘cut-off date’ of 31 December 2025. Under draft regulations considered by the stakeholder working group (which commended the 2015 Act reforms), a historical way will be excluded from extinguishment if it is identified in an application for a DMMO — but only if the application has been registered. Registered means the application must be included in a register held by the surveying authority under s.53B of the 1981 Act. Applicants ought to be (or at least, will in future be) keen to ensure that every application founded in historical evidence is duly registered, so that the application way endures past the cut-off date. There remains some uncertainty about what will happen to applications made close to the cut-off date which are not registered in time, but we can probably assume that specific provision will be made.

The procedure for an application for a DMMO is set out, for now, in Sch.14 to the 1981 Act. But practice varies between surveying authorities. Some register an application soon after receipt, while others do nothing until they have received (under para.2(3) of Sch.14) a certificate of service of notices on owners and occupiers of land. A few — perhaps unfamiliar with applications — appear to have no register at all. What does it take to get an application registered?

The starting point is that an application must be made in accordance with para.1 of Sch.14 — that means in the prescribed form (Sch.7 to the Wildlife and Countryside (Definitive Maps and Statements) Regulations 1993), with a map to at least a scale of 1:25,000, and copies of the evidence. There seems little doubt that authorities can waive some non-compliance with those para.1 requirements — Dyson LJ in R (on the application of Winchester College & Anor) v Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs expressly allowed for local authority discretion where the extinguishment of rights for motor vehicles is not in issue (see para.55 of the judgment): anyone who tells you that Winchester is authority for demanding strict compliance in the general context of a DMMO application doesn’t understand the judgment. But if the authority wants to insist on rectifying non-compliance, now is the time to do so — not after registration, and certainly not some years later when an officer finally grapples with the detail of the application.

Under the Public Rights of Way (Register of Applications under section 53(5) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) (England) Regulations 2005 (the 2005 Regulations), an authority must register an application within 28 days of receipt (r.3(6)(a)). The 2005 Regulations do not define ‘application’. So what is an ‘application’, the receipt of which triggers the 28 day countdown?

It seems that the authority must, prior to registration, look at what it has received simply in order to establish whether it is indeed a para.1 application. For example, if the authority received a letter stating (in so many words) that there was a historic right of way between A and B, and please would the council make a definitive map modification order — the authority would not wish to register that as an application. (An irony of the requirements imposed on an applicant by para.1 of Sch.14 is that such a non-compliant letter might nevertheless alert the authority to evidence of the existence of an unrecorded right of way, and trigger its duty under s.53(2)(b) and (3)(c)(i) of the 1981 Act anyway to make a DMMO. It is only because this general duty is widely ignored that applications are so important.)

That is not to say that the authority must, before registration, determine the application, or even carry out a preliminary assessment (as it will be required to do after the 2015 Act is brought into force). At this stage, it must be enough to exercise common sense — check for the correct form, properly completed, map to sufficient scale, list of evidence, evidence attached (not whether the evidence is sufficient), signed, dated. This is not the time for an investigation, but a cursory check. But if there is anything present (or not present) which, later on, would cause the authority to decide that it cannot even determine the application (as opposed to refusing it), then it should be identified and communicated right away.

if the application looks properly made in accordance with the requirements of the legislation, it can be registered — and if it isn’t, the authority should write back and point out the mistakes.

This might also be a good time for the authority to offer any advice to the applicant about the ownership or occupation of the land affected by the application, if the authority has particular knowledge. Whether an authority can communicate that knowledge to an applicant (who, after all, by virtue of para.2(1) is under a duty to serve notices on the owners and occupiers) without breaching data privacy is an interesting question to which I do not have the answer.

But it is at this stage that some authorities’ practice differs, with an insistence that the authority will take no action on an application until the applicant has proceeded to comply with the requirements of para.2 — the service of notices, and certification of compliance. It may be said by the authority that there is no ‘application’ at all, and that the requirements of the 2005 Regulations do not bite, until the applicant has got past para.2. That insistence may be wrong, for several reasons.

First, there is the plain language of the 1981 Act itself. Para.1 provides that ‘An application shall be made in the prescribed form’, and sets out what must accompany the form. Para.2(1) then requires that, ‘the applicant shall serve a notice stating that the application has been made…’. This makes clear that ‘the application has [already] been made’. What is required of the applicant by para.2 is notice of something that has already happened — the application.

Thus, where the 2005 regulations refer to an ‘application’, they must bear the same meaning as in the parent Act — and that is that an ‘application has been made’ when the requirements of para.1 are satisfied.

Secondly, there is Defra’s Register of definitive map modification order applications — Guidance for English surveying authorities to accompany Statutory Instrument 2005 No 2461 (i.e. to accompany the 2005 Regulations). Inevitably, Defra’s guidance is no longer maintained on gov.uk, meaning it has a zero profile, and leaving one uncertain whether Defra means that it still should be relied upon (in practice, the absence of a profile simply reflects Defra having lost control of its web presence). It is available archived [scroll down to Registers of modifications, applications and declarations.]. The guidance states at footnote 2, that:

‘While, by virtue of paragraph 3(1) of Schedule 14 WCA 1981, the obligation to investigate the matters stated in the application does not arise until a surveying authority has received a certificate under paragraph 2(3) of Schedule 14 WCA 1981, by virtue of regulation 3(6) [of the 2005 Regulations] the obligation to include an entry in the register relates to the date the application is received by an authority. Thus, the obligation to include an entry in the register is independent of the receipt of certification that paragraph 2 of Schedule 14 WCA 1981 has been complied with. Of course, the fact that there is an entry on the register in relation to an application does not affect: (i) the date on which an authority must begin investigating the application, or (ii) the notice requirements set out in paragraph 2 of Schedule 14 WCA 1981.’

The third reason relies on an amendment made by the Deregulation Act 2015 (Sch 7, Pt 1, para.4), to insert new s.53B(4A) into the 1981 Act (this amendment, in common with the 2015 Act reforms generally, has not yet been brought into force). The amendment provides that (following implementation of the 2015 Act), the 2005 regulations can be amended so as to provide that an entry need not be made in the register until after the authority has served notice of the application on owners and occupiers (under the 2015 reforms, the authority takes on from the applicant responsibility for service of initial notices). Such an amendment would be redundant if an application was not complete until notices had been served. It suggests that the 1981 Act (and therefore the 2005 Regulations) contemplate an application being complete after compliance with para.1 — and before compliance with para.2.

The fourth is a matter of practicality. It is unhelpful to wait until the applicant has wasted his or her time, the notified owners’ and occupiers’ time, and the officer’s time, by serving notices and providing a certificate of service (still less by posting notices on site where required under para.2(2)), and then point out, after all of this has been done, that the application was non-compliant — and please could the applicant fix it and start all over again? The applicant surely is entitled to be informed, soon after application, whether the application is considered sufficiently whole to be entered on the register, and to be notified to the owners and occupiers. The applicant can then proceed to para.2 notification. Owners and occupiers need be troubled only when the applicant, and the authority, are confident that the application is duly made.

And for the fifth, we must turn to the 2005 Regulations. The provision, in r.3(6)(a), demands that: ‘An entry in the register [relating to an application] shall be made by the later of: (a) the date falling 28 days from the date such application is received by a surveying authority’ — not the date that the para.2(3) certificate is received by the authority. The regulations demand that the application (referred to as such) is registered within 28 days regardless of whether, and if so, when, it is certified. If the regulations intended to allow 28 days from the date of receipt of the certificate, vice the application, they ought to have said so.

It is not that para.2 notification is dispensable. An applicant may in certain circumstances be content that the application remains on the register potentially indefinitely, and see no need to comply with para.2. But para.3 is clear that the authority is under no obligation to determine an application, and the applicant cannot after one year ask the Secretary of State to direct determination, unless the para.2(3) certificate of service has been received. That is a powerful driver for compliance with para.2, at least for most applicants.

It must be said that some eager applicants — aided and abetted by misleading guidance published by some authorities and others — sabotage the legislative scheme in Sch.14 by making a ‘rolled-up’ application which purports to comply with both para.1 and para.2 — that is, the application is accompanied by the certificate of service, presumably which together were despatched by the applicant at the same time as the notices were served. This cannot be right: an application cannot be made, the notices served, the notices received and the certificate issued, all on the same day (at least, not without some incredibly nifty footwork involving personal delivery at all stages) — even assuming that the applicant does not need to be assured of successful service through recorded delivery or other tracking mechanisms (a point which deserves an article of its own). In R v Isle of Wight County Council ex parte O’Keefe and O’Keefe [(1989) 59 P & CR 283, [1989] JPL 934], one of the grounds of challenge to an order was that the relevant notices had not been served (the judgment wrongly refers to the duty being on the authority to serve notices). Macpherson J said:

‘The point is taken that the date of the relevant notice addressed to Mr. O’Keefe (…11th May 1987) is the same as the date on the paragraph 2(3) certificate (…). Therefore there could not have been service on everybody before the certificate was signed on 11th May 1987.’

Applicants accordingly should be advised to take paras.1 and 2 step by step:

  • • apply (para.1)
  • • await validation of application as ‘duly made’
  • • await registration (s.53B and the 2005 Regulations)
  • • following registration, serve notices (para.2(1), and para.2(2) if relevant)
  • • certify service of notices after the applicant is confident that the para.2(1) notices have been received (and if relevant, the para.2(2) notices have been erected on site) (para.2(3))

Each of these elements should be taken sequentially.

Some surveying authorities resist registering applications ahead of certification partly because, in consequence, a landowner may be astonished to discover a registered application (of which the landowner has not been notified), still more one which the authority has no duty to determine, yet is destined to remain on the register indefinitely — a blight on the property. Perhaps so — although the authority cannot be held liable for implementing the legislation in accordance with its duty.

But consider the position where a person acquires land following a clean pre-purchase search, only to discover subsequently that the surveying authority was in receipt of a duly made application to record a right of way across that land, and that the application did not appear on the register (and was not notified on the search) because, owing to the para.2(3) certificate being outstanding, the authority had failed to register it within 28 days in accordance with the 2005 Regulations. The authority may well be liable for nonfeasance, because the authority would be in breach of its duty to register, and the failure to register may have serious consequences for the purchaser. The primary duty must be for the authority to register applications — not to concern itself with the consequences of registration where the registration is done lawfully.

In any case, any open-ended sterilisation of land arising from a registered application which has not been certified will, on current expectations, be brought to an end by regulations implementing the 2015 Act. These may well require surveying authorities to carry out a preliminary assessment on all registered applications, whether they have been notified or not. If those arrangements are confirmed, expect to see more applicants resile from para.2 service in the run up to the implementation date. Otherwise, the service of notices by the applicant generally is a pre-requisite to determination. But it is not a pre-requisite to registration, and common sense suggests that authorities should confirm whether applications are duly made within a short time of receipt — and if they are, add them to the s.53B register within the 28 days allowed.