I suspect that lawyers sometimes forget that there are people and places behind the legal cases they cite so enthusiastically.
I was invited to speak at a seminar organised by Francis Taylor Building (FTB) Chambers a few weeks ago. The seminar was called: ‘The Law of Footpaths, Town and Village Greens and Commons: the Way Forward in 2015’. My brief was to reflect on the future for commons and village greens. There was a series of shortish, insightful sessions, mostly presented by lawyers working in the field. They discussed the law which has been made, or reversed, in village-green and public-path cases.
The names came tripping off their collective tongues: Andrews 1 and Andrews 2, Barkas, Beresford, Betterment, Leeds, Newhaven, Paddico, Sunderland, Sunningwell and Oxfordshire, to name a few. Sometimes the cases are named after a person or company, sometimes a place, but there is a real world behind them.
It’s all fascinating stuff, especially the interpretation of the law by which the public obtains rights to enjoy a route and can thereby apply to record a path on the definitive map of rights of way, or local inhabitants can win rights to enjoy a space and thereby claim a village green for the register. One of the many tricky legal issues is to determine whether the public use for the 20-year qualifying period has been ‘as of right’, ie without force, secrecy or permission, or ‘by right’ ie with permission or some authority. Only use which has been ‘as of right’ is eligible, but there are many issues to be resolved in proving such a right and the law is still unclear.
As I sat there listening, and thinking what to say in my reflections, it struck me that while the lawyers are engrossed in these legal arguments and the meaning of words, they tend to overlook the human story. Each of the cases they cited involved people usually with strong emotions about the fight in which they were engaged. Those individuals cared deeply for the path or space which they enjoyed with their family or friends, and each case was about a much-loved local asset, the fate of which would probably be determined by the outcome.
So Betterment is about Curtis Fields, 46 acres of green space close to Weymouth in Dorset, over which the Society for the Protection of Markham and Little Francis led by Gill Taylor spent many years of stress and worry. Barkas is the fight by Christine Barkas and the Heldredale Neighbourhood Council to save ‘The Field’, 35 acres near Whitby in North Yorkshire. Paddico signifies hours of sweat by Mike Hardy and the Clayton Fields Action Group, campaigning for 6.5 acres of grassland north-west of Huddersfield. Newhaven represents a long battle by Newhaven Town Council and local residents to claim as a green West Beach which is now in the grip of the port authority. All these cases were eventually lost and the fate of the much-loved land in question is unclear, but it is certainly not secure.
When the cases are named I immediately have a picture of the place in my mind—even if I have never been there. When Redcar is mentioned I visualise the rough golf-course where a green was successfully claimed on the windy north-east coast. Oxfordshire brings to mind the bosky woods at Trap Grounds, Oxford, where Catherine Robinson and the Friends of Trap Grounds fought such a splendid battle to save it from becoming a housing estate.
That is the joy of working for a pressure group such as the Open Spaces Society, getting to know the people and the places, and to experience the energy and emotion which goes into the campaigns which are nearly always being fought for altruistic reasons, to benefit the community and not for private gain.
It is always tragic to lose a case—but better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all.