House of Lords portcullis
House of Lords
Session 2006 - 07
Publications on the Internet
PDF Print Versionpdf icon

Judgments - R (on the application of Godmanchester Town Council (Appellants) v. Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent) and one other action R (on the application of Drain) (Appellant) v. Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent) and other action


    SESSION 2006-07

    [2007] UKHL 28

    on appeal from: [2005] EWCA Civ 1597





    R (on the application of Godmanchester Town Council) (Appellants) v. Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent) and one other action

    R (on the application of Drain) (Appellant) v. Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent) and one other action

    Appellate Committee

    Lord Hoffmann

    Lord Hope of Craighead

    Lord Scott of Foscote

    Baroness Hale of Richmond

    Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury




    George Laurence QC

    Miss Ross Crail

    (Instructed by J J Pearlman with Zermansky & Partners, Leeds)


    Timothy Mould QC

    David Blundell

    (Instructed by Treasury Solicitor)


    Edwin Simpson

    (Instructed by Blandy & Blandy, Reading)

    Hearing dates:

    8, 9 and 10 May 2007


    WEDNESDAY 20 JUNE 2007




R (on the application of Godmanchester Town Council) (Appellants) v. Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent) and one other action

R (on the application of Drain) (Appellant) v. Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent) and one other action

[2007] UKHL 28


My Lords,

    1.  These two appeals are test cases brought before the House for a ruling on the effect of the presumption in section 31(1) of the Highways Act 1980:

    "Where a way over any land… has been actually enjoyed by the public as of right and without interruption for a full period of 20 years, the way is to be deemed to have been dedicated as a highway unless there is sufficient evidence that there was no intention during that period to dedicate it."

    2.  The main issue in both appeals is over the nature of the evidence which will be sufficient to demonstrate that there was no intention to dedicate. Although the point can be put in a variety of ways, it seems to me to turn in the end on the meaning of the word "intention". The respondent landowners say that intention is a state of mind, with all the subjectivity which that implies. In principle, the owner himself is the person best qualified to give evidence about his own state of mind. Such evidence could be confirmed by acts done during the relevant period, such as putting up notices or barriers or recording his intentions in letters or memoranda. In evaluating such acts, no distinction can be drawn between those which would have come to the attention of users of the way and those which would not. What matters is the owner's state of mind and not what users of the way would have thought about it.

    3.  The contrary view is that the term intention is being used in an objective sense. It means what users of the way would reasonably have thought to be the owner's state of mind, which may or may not coincide with his actual state of mind. Similarly when one speaks of the intention of the parties to a contract, one means what a reasonable person, possessed of the background knowledge available to the parties, would have understood what they meant by using the language in which they expressed their agreement. Likewise, adverse possession by a squatter is said to require an animus possidendi, an intention to possess. But, as Slade J said in the leading case of Powell v McFarlane (1977) 38 P & CR 452 (approved as a "remarkable judgment" by the House of Lords in JA Pye (Oxford) Ltd v Graham [2003] 1 AC 419, per Lord Browne-Wilkinson at p. 432):

    "In such a situation the courts will, in my judgment, require clear and affirmative evidence that the trespasser, claiming that he has acquired possession, not only had the requisite intention to possess, but made such intention clear to the world."

    4.  Before I say anything about the facts of this appeal, I must put section 31(1) into its wider setting. It is derived from section 1(1) of the Rights of Way Act 1932, which in turn built upon foundations laid by the common law. As has often been explained, English law differs from civilian systems such as the law of Scotland by having no doctrine of acquisition of rights, public or private, by long user: see R v Oxfordshire County Council, ex parte Sunningwell Parish Council [2000] 1 AC 335, 349. Instead, it treats user since time immemorial, that is to say, since 1189, as raising an irrebuttable presumption that the right had a lawful origin in grant to a predecessor in title or dedication to the public at large. As the reign of Richard I slipped further into the remote past, that presumption had to be supplemented by the judicial invention of others. In the case of claims to private easements such as rights of way, juries were told that user since time immemorial could be inferred from evidence of user for a long time, but that this could be rebutted by evidence that the easement could not have existed in 1189. As that was often quite easy to prove, the presumption had to be further supplemented by directions that the jury could in such a case infer the existence of a more recent grant which had been lost. This remained the law until it was reformed by the Prescription Act 1832, to which I shall return later.

    5.  In the case of a public right of way, a lawful origin had to be found in dedication by the landowner at some unknown date in the past. Such dedication was analogous to the lost modern grant of a private easement. Juries were told that they could find such a dedication on evidence of user openly and as of right by members of the public and were often encouraged to do so. The reason for juries and judges being willing to make and accept findings that there had been a dedication or a lost modern grant was of course the unfairness of disturbing rights which had been exercised without objection for a long time. In Scottish law, this policy was given effect by the more logical method of allowing such user to create the right. But in England the policy of the law was not openly acknowledged. Instead, juries were told that in order to uphold the public right, they had to find as a fact that there had been an act of dedication accompanied by the necessary animus dedicandi on the part of the landowner: see Poole v Huskinson (1843) 11 M & W 827.

    6.  As a matter of experience and common sense, however, dedication is not usually the most likely explanation for long user by the public, any more than a lost modern grant is the most likely explanation for long user of a private right of way. People do dedicate land as public highways, particularly in laying out building schemes. It is however hard to believe that many of the cartways, bridle paths and footpaths in rural areas owe their origin to a conscious act of dedication. Tolerance, good nature, ignorance or inertia on the part of landowners over many years are more likely explanations. In Jones v Bates [1938] 2 All ER 237, 244 Scott LJ said that actual dedication was "often a pure legal fiction [which] put on the affirmant of the public right an artificial onus which was often fatal to his success." In Jaques v Secretary of State for the Environment [1995] JPL 1031, 1037 Laws J called it an "Alice in Wonderland requirement."

    7.  Nevertheless, juries and other tribunals of fact did frequently find that such acts of dedication had taken place, no doubt for the reason I have suggested. So much so that in Folkestone Corporation v Brockman [1914] AC 338 it was argued that, in the absence of evidence of facts inconsistent with such a dedication, they were obliged to make such a finding. But this submission was rejected by the House of Lords and it became settled that user was no more than evidence from which dedication could be inferred. It was open to the jury to ascribe the user to toleration or some other cause. Since, as I have said, some other cause was in real life more likely, it became difficult to predict when or for what reason a jury would have sufficient sympathy with the users of the highway to find that there had been a dedication.

    8.  English judges were embarrassed by the fictions of lost modern grant, animus dedicandi and the like ("a bad and mischievous law, and one which is discreditable to us as a civilized and enlightened people" said Cockburn CJ in Bryant v Foot (1867) LR 2 QB 161, 179) and looked enviously north of the border (see Lord Blackburn in Mann v Brodie (1885) 10 App Cas 378, 386.) The law of private rights of way and certain other easements was reformed by the Prescription Act 1832 and since this provided a model for the 1932 Act, it is helpful to see how it worked. Starting from the common law, namely that user since 1189 would establish the easement, it provided in section 2 that a claim to such an easement which had been "actually enjoyed by any person claiming right thereto without interruption for the full period of twenty years" should not be defeated by evidence which showed that it had arisen at some earlier date. This meant that it could no longer be defeated by showing that it had arisen after 1189.

    9.  Section 4 provided that the "full period of twenty years" should be taken to be the period next before the proceedings in which the claim shall have been "brought into question". If the statute had said no more, it would have been possible for a landowner to defeat a claim under the Act by the simple expedient of interrupting the enjoyment of the easement. The time which had necessarily to elapse between the interruption and the commencement of proceedings by the dominant owner to vindicate his right would automatically have prevented the latter from proving enjoyment without interruption for the 20 years "next before" the proceedings. Section 4 therefore went on to provide that "no act or other matter shall be deemed to be an interruption" unless it had been submitted to or acquiesced in for one year after the party interrupted had had notice thereof. That meant that if the servient owner barred the way, the dominant owner had a year within which to commence proceedings and claim the benefit of the statute.

    10.  The 1932 Act followed the same pattern, but with two important variations. First, section 1(1) contained the proviso which allowed the presumption of dedication to be rebutted by "sufficient evidence that there was no intention during that period to dedicate such way". There was no such proviso in the 1832 Act. Other subsections in section 1 of the 1932 Act provided that specific acts would be treated as sufficient evidence to negative the intention to dedicate. By section 1(3) (now section 31(3) and (5) of the 1980 Act), a notice inconsistent with dedication, placed and maintained "in such a manner as to be visible to those using the way" will be sufficient. If the notice is torn down, notice in writing to the county and borough or rural district council that the way is not dedicated to the public will be sufficient. By section 1(4) (now section 31(6) of the 1980 Act) a landowner may deposit with the county council and the borough, urban district or rural district councils a map of his land and a statement indicating which ways he admits to have been dedicated as highways. He may then at any time within the next 10 years make a statutory declaration that he has not dedicated any additional ways and that will be sufficient evidence to negative his intention to have dedicated any such ways. The process may be repeated by further statutory declarations at intervals of not more than 10 years.

    11.  The other difference was that the 20 year retrospective period did not, as in the 1832 Act, run from the commencement of the proceedings contesting the highway, with a year's grace period which did not count as an interruption. Instead, it ran from when the right to the way was "brought into question", without any grace period. That suggests that the draftsman, with the example of section 4 of the 1832 Act before him, thought that if he ran the period back from the date when the right was brought into question, no grace period would be needed.

    12.  That, my Lords, is the common law and statutory background against which the dispute over the meaning of the term "sufficient evidence that there was no intention…to dedicate" in section 31(1) must be resolved. The help which may be obtained from the pre-1932 cases is limited. As the onus was on the claimant to prove dedication and there was no need for the landowner to prove facts inconsistent with dedication, the courts were not concerned to pin down very precisely what would be sufficient to show inconsistency. There are, however, some indications that the judges were looking at how the matter would have appeared to users of the way.

    13.  In Trustees of the British Museum v Finnis (1833) 5 Car & P 460, 465 Patteson J told a jury:

    "If a man opens his land, so that the public pass over it continually, the public, after a user of very few years, would be entitled to pass over it, and use it as a way; and if the party does not mean to dedicate it as a way, but only to give a licence, he should do some act to show that he gives a licence only. The common course is, to shut it up one day in every year, which I believe is the case at Lincoln's Inn."

    14.  This suggests that what matters is the impression given to members of the public. Likewise in Barraclough v Johnson (1838) 8 Ad & E 99, 105, Littledale J said:

    "A man may say that he does not mean to dedicate a way to the public, and yet, if he had allowed them to pass every day for a length of time, his declaration alone would not be regarded, but it would be for a jury to say whether he had intended to dedicate it or not. The facts may warrant them in believing that the way was dedicated, though he has said that he did not so intend: and, if his intention be insisted upon, it may be answered that he should have shewn it by putting up a gate, or by some other act."

    15.  In Regina v Broke (1859) 1 F & F 514, 515, a trial on indictment for stopping up a highway, the landowner claimed to have instructed his servants to allow only seafaring men and pilots to use the path and to turn back anyone else. Pollock CB said:

    "Even supposing these instructions to have been given and acted on, yet, unless it can be proved that they were communicated to the persons who used the path, and that they did so by virtue thereof, and not of right, their user was a user by the public, and the right of way has been gained, if the user has been continued long enough."

    16.  It is true that there is no express statement that intention had to be negatived by overt and notorious acts. But then, as I have said, intention did not have to be negatived at all. And there is no case in which a jury was directed to have regard to an act which one might call private, in the sense of something which would not have come to the attention of users of the way.

    17.  The first consideration of the matter after 1932 was the decision of the Court of Appeal in Fairey v Southampton County Council [1956] 2 QB 439. This was an application to quarter sessions (under section 31 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949) by the owner of Bossington House in Hampshire for a declaration that a footpath over his land was not a public highway. The evidence was that it had been used uninterruptedly from 1885 to 1931 by inhabitants of the nearby villages of Bossington, Houghton and Horsebridge. As from that date, a new owner of the estate had challenged users who were not near neighbours and turned them back. Quarter sessions found that the challenges had brought the public right to use the path into question and that the relevant 20 year period for the purposes of the Act was therefore 1911 to 1931. As there had been qualifying user during this period, the public right of way was established.

    18.  The landowner appealed by case stated to the Divisional Court. One ground of appeal, which is not relevant to this case, was that if quarter sessions were right about the relevant 20 year period, the Act could not apply because it was not retrospective. The other ground was that the challenges did not bring the right to use the path into question. The landowner said that it was not brought into question until he objected in 1953 to the inclusion of the path in the definitive map. But he relied on the challenges as evidence to negative an intention to dedicate during the 20 years ending in 1953.

    19.  The Divisional Court rejected both arguments and the landowner appealed to the Court of Appeal. The leading judgment was given by Denning LJ. He dealt first with what amounted to bringing the right into question. Although the passage is a long one, I think that it should (with one or two excisions) be quoted in full:

    "I think that in order for the right of the public to have been 'brought into question', the landowner must challenge it by some means sufficient to bring it home to the public that he is challenging their right to use the way, so that they may be apprised of the challenge and have a reasonable opportunity of meeting it. The landowner can challenge their right, for instance, by putting a barrier across the path or putting up a notice forbidding the public to use the path. When he does so, the public may meet the challenge. Some village Hampden may push down the barrier or tear down the notice: the local council may bring an action in the name of the Attorney-General against the landowner in the courts claiming that there is a public right of way: or no one may do anything, in which case the acquiescence of the public tends to show that they have no right of way.

    But whatever the public do, whether they oppose the landowner's action or not, their right is 'brought into question' as soon as the landowner puts up a notice or in some other way makes it clear to the public that he is challenging their right to use the way.

    Applying this test, I ask myself: when did the landowner here make it clear to the public that he was challenging their right to use the way? Quarter sessions held that he did so in 1931, when he objected to the use of the path by persons who were not local residents. We do not know what evidence was before them on that point. If the landowner merely turned back one stranger on an isolated occasion, that would not, I think, be sufficient to make it clear to 'the public' that they had no right to use it. He ought at least to make it clear to the villagers of Bossington, Houghton and Horsebridge. They were the members of the public most concerned to assert the right, because they were the persons who used the path. They knew - better than the landowner himself - how long they had used it. They were the persons to tell. It was no good the landowner speaking to a stranger who would know nothing of the public right and would not be concerned to assert it…I think we ought to assume that quarter sessions had sufficient evidence before them to support their finding. We ought to assume that in 1931 when the landowner turned back strangers, he did it in so open and notorious a fashion that it was made clear, not only to strangers, that they had no right to use the path, but also to local residents, that they only used it by tolerance of the owner."

    20.  That was sufficient to dispose of the case, since there was no dispute that there had been qualifying user in the 20 years before 1931. As a statement of what amounts to bringing the right into question, it has always been treated as authoritative and was applied by the inspectors and the Court of Appeal in these cases. But Denning LJ then went on to consider the finding of quarter sessions that the landowner's conduct in 1931 and thereafter had demonstrated an intention not to dedicate the path as a highway:

    "In this connection I would also mention the finding of quarter sessions that in and from 1931 the landowner, by turning off strangers, showed an intention not to dedicate the path as a highway for the use of members of the public at large. This raises the same point. In my opinion a landowner cannot escape the effect of 20 years' prescription by saying that, locked in his own mind, he had no intention to dedicate … . In order for there to be 'sufficient evidence that there was no intention' to dedicate the way, there must be evidence of some overt acts on the part of the landowner such as to show the public at large - the public who used the path, in this case the villagers - that he had no intention to dedicate. He must, in Lord Blackburn's words, take steps to disabuse those persons of any belief that there was a public right: see Mann v Brodie (1885) 10 App Cas 378, 386. Such evidence may consist, as in the leading case of Poole v Huskinson (1843) 11 M & W 827, of notices or a barrier: or the common method of closing the way one day a year. That was not done here; but we must assume that the landowner turned off strangers in so open and notorious a fashion that it was clear to everyone that he was asserting that the public had no right to use it. On that footing there was sufficient evidence to show that there was no intention to dedicate."

    21.  These observations on the meaning of "evidence that there was no intention to dedicate" were obiter dicta. They were not necessary for the decision and the other two members of the Court (Birkett and Parker LJJ) did not mention the point. But there are obiter dicta and obiter dicta. These were no throw-away lines. This was a learned and carefully prepared reserved judgment (including reference to authorities which had not been cited by counsel) by one of the greatest English judges on a matter close to his heart: a village dispute in his own county of Hampshire.

    22.  For over forty years, Denning LJ's statement of the law remained unchallenged. It was cited in text books and applied in judgments of lower courts (see, for example, Walton J in R v Secretary of State for the Environment, ex parte Blake [1984] JPL 101, 102, Pill J in O'Keefe v Secretary of State for the Environment [1996] JPL 42, 58-59 and Laws J in Jaques v Secretary of State for the Environment [1995] JPL 1031, 1035-1037). This last case, although following the Fairey case, contains some puzzling dicta. Laws J said that the effect of the proviso was that —

    "even if use of the required quality was proved, the status of right of way would not be established if the landowner demonstrated an intention not to dedicate."

    23.  That is plainly true. But the judge then went on:

    "The logical relationship between the two parts of the subsection entailed that proof of an intention not to dedicate could be constituted by something less than proof of facts which had to have made it clear to the public that they had no right to use the way: otherwise, once the interested public had established their case under the first part of the subsection, there would be no room for the operation of the second part."

    24.  This, I am afraid, I do not follow at all. The evidence which will satisfy the proviso is not something less than enjoyment as of right but something different. For example, there may be a notice which says "No right of way. Trespassers will be prosecuted." Nevertheless, for upwards of twenty years members of the public may have ignored the notice and used the way, openly and apparently in the assertion of a right to do so. Their user will satisfy section 31(1) but the landowner, even on the most objective test, will have satisfied the proviso. (It may be that putting up the notice also brought the right to use the way into question, in which case, as in the Fairey case, the public would succeed if they could prove another 20 years user before the notice went up. But that is another matter.) The potential contradiction imagined by Laws J may be due to the view held, at the time of his judgment, that enjoyment as of right required a subjective belief by the users that they had the relevant right - a view which was rejected in R v Oxfordshire County Council, ex parte Sunningwell Parish Council [2000] 1 AC 335. Even so, there need not be any contradiction. The users and the landowner may simply differ in their opinions as to whether the right exists or not.