England’s Law Lords have overturned a ruling that allowed landowners to close footpaths in an underhand way.

The Ramblers’ Association (RA) successfully appealed against a decision which meant that owners could claim a footpath was not public even if no signs or barriers had been erected to warn walkers. Previously, even though members of the public had used a path for 20 years or more, all a landowner had to do to thwart its recognition was to produce a letter written to legal representatives or even evidence of a private conversation. It would even be enough to write a letter to yourself and lock it away.

The RA backed the appeal to the House of Lords, England’s highest court, in a test case which has important consequences for future claims. Lord Hoffman delivered the verdict on behalf of the five lords who considered the cases.

Janet Davis, of the RA, said: “This is a landmark ruling which will mean that actions to stop paths being recognised as public rights of way must be transparent.  

“Their Lordships have thoroughly re-examined the law on how rights of way are established, reverting to Lord Denning's statement of the law which had stood for more than forty years unchallenged. Recent interpretations had meant that members of the public were wasting months making claims for paths which were defeated by evidence which was not in the public domain.

“Many footpaths are heavily used but we only appreciate them when they are under threat.  

“Some are key links in the transport network, many are our escape routes when we want to get out into the countryside for some peace and quiet and are the cheapest gym in the country. It is very important that they are protected for everyone to use.”

The case will now form the basis for determining whether footpaths have been open for public use and therefore dedicated as rights-of-way.