Barnsey's guide to  Unformed legal roads

Do you know your parks from your reserves? Which ones might be swapped tomorrow, which will be there for your grandchildren? Understand the legalese behind the land parcels that collectively constitute our public conservation land.

In this occasional series, David Barnes attempts to unravel and demystify the different types of conservation land and other public land that is important to outdoor recreationalists.

Unformed legal roads, often called paper roads, have the same legal status as any other road, which includes an absolute public right to use them for passage. That doesn’t mean they have to be useable by vehicles. If someone says that a legal road goes through a paddock, they really mean that the road runs between two separate land parcels. The landowner doesn’t own the road, and has no more right to prevent use of the road than someone owning buildings on opposite sides of Queen Street could prevent someone walking down it. Fences and locked gates across roads are illegal, although if a stile is provided there’s no point standing on ceremony.

If you want to assert your right to use a road, you need to be sure of your ground. While a survey is the only rock-solid proof, the Walking Access Commission maps ( and a GPS probably give you sufficient grounds to put the onus of proof back on anyone who say that’s not where the road is. Unformed legal roads often take impractical routes over cliffs or through rivers. That doesn’t give trampers the right to deviate from them. At that point, you’re on private land and need permission.

In some cases where an unformed road goes somewhere that is inconvenient or impractical for the adjacent landowner, an alternative marked route that suits recreational users and the landowner is identified. The road still exists in case the informal arrangement doesn’t last, but in the meantime it can be a win-win.

Roads can only be formally stopped by councils following process that starts with a public notice and sometimes ends in the Environment Court. There is plenty of case law that says a closure for a private benefit can’t overrule a public benefit. If you see a notice saying a road in your patch might be stopped, look into whether there is or (could be in future) a recreational use and, if so, put in an objection. FMC can assist in framing the objection.

Next time: Marginal strips and unlocking the Queen’s Chain

David Barnes is a long serving member of the FMC executive. He is FMC’s nominee to the NZ Conservation Authority, the public representative board which provides advice to DOC and the Minister of Conservation.