Letter: Bill turns walkers into criminals

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The Independent Online
Sir: The prospect of the 'aggravated trespass' clauses of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill turning innocent walkers into criminals is even more real than Alan Mattingly suggests (26 July). Already the threat that 'trespassers will be prosecuted' is widely used to deter walkers even though it is, for the moment, empty. Landowners are not going to pass up the opportunity to take full advantage of a new law playing into their hands.

At present, many landowners are seeking to create a new source of income out of charging ramblers for access. The long-standing tradition of de facto free access to our countryside in many places stands in their way. The ability to threaten walkers that they face criminal prosecution unless they have secured the landowner's consent to their presence will provide exactly the weapon such landowners need. Of course, the Bill has not been prepared for this purpose and it may well not have occurred to Michael Howard that it could be put to this use. But it could be, and, if passed, it certainly will be.

The 'intent' on the part of trespassers to obstruct lawful activity which the Bill will criminalise need amount to no more than possessing awareness of the probable consequences of the trespasser's acts. If a landowner puts up signs telling people their presence may disturb pheasant- rearing, lambing, forestry operations or whatever else he likes to specify, he will then be able to claim that a walker who must have seen his notice but still went on to his land 'intended' to disrupt the named activity and is therefore guilty of the new offence. He will then be in a position to call police.

Already Scottish landowners litter the Highlands with sinister-sounding warnings to walkers that their presence on the hills may disrupt deer-stalking. Nothing would doubtless please these landowners more than the opportunity to add that such disruption was a criminal offence carrying the penalty of imprisonment in some circumstances.

Plenty of landowners are capable of seeking prosecutions in such cases. Many more are capable of using the threat of so doing to strengthen the barrier between the people and their countryside which even the existing civil tort of trespass manages to constitute.

Yours faithfully,

MARION SHOARD

Department of Land Management and Development

University of Reading

Reading, Berkshire

28 July

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