An Interesting (but wholly normal) Trespass and Rights of Way Case in Northern Ireland*

Seaport Investments Limited, Seymore Henry Sweeney Carol Sweeney v Andrew Cameron, Mitchell Bailey, John Crooks and the Attorney-General [1999] NIQB 1943

This case concerns rights of way across a property near the Giant’s Causeway known as Runkerry House. You can see the land in Google Maps here.

The property was originally built for Lord MacNaghten. There is a public road (Runkerry Road) which becomes the driveway to the house and on the far side of the house is a public footpath which runs along the cliff tops. Given the locality this is fairly heavily used. Historically there was no gateway on the drive and no clear boundary demarcating the land around Runkerry House. The issue is over the right of the public to pass beyond the end of the public road and to use the driveway of he house to secure passage to and from the cliff path. There was a subsidiary dispute as to where the public road ends and the driveway to the house begins.

The house is now owned by Seaport and the case was primarily brought by Mr Crooks who resides locally.

Until about 1950 the property was occupied by the dughters of Lord MacNaghten and it then passed through a period of public ownership operating as an old people’s home, school, and outdoor pursuits centre before ending up in the hands of Seaport in the 1990’s. Mr Crooks has resided nearby since 1986 and has lived in the area since his birth in 1952. He gave evidence that he had during his teenage years passed up the disputed driveway in order to fish and had then passed through a gap in an escalonia hedge to reach his preferred fishing grounds. He also stated that he would meet with girls who worked at Runkerry House and would walk with them on the cliff path.

A Dr MacLaine also gave evidence of his walks in the 1930s and his memories of being able to walk along the road and through the same gap in the hedge.

He said he has a distinct memory on one occasion of sheltering with his fiancee in the escallonia hedge.

A number of other witnesses gave evidence. The upshot was that the roadway and gap had been used for a considerable period of time by walkers in the area. There was a degree of difference in the amount of leeway permitted to those walkers but it seemed clear that a significant number of individuals had walked up the roadway and throught the gap in the hedge unopposed. A number of witnesses maintained that they felt they had the right to exclude anyone they wished but that they chose not to do so.

The question for the Court was therefore “one of fact to decide whether there has been an express dedication of the way in question to the public or whether its use by the public has been such that dedication should be implied.”

The Court considered a Grand Jury presentement from 1865 but did not find it particularly useful and also concluded that the road had not been repaired at public expense.

Ultimately the Court took the view that while there had undoubtedly been a degree of tolerance of use by neighbours and others it could “find nothing in the evidence of those who used the driveway and the way down from the gap in the escallonia hedge to the river to suggest anything other than neighbourly permissive use or a failure to challenge based on the fact that quite a variety of persons was entitled to access, not every incursion was noticed, and there was some uncertainty about the precise legal situation.”

Therefore while it was the case that use had been tolerated over a large number of years there was insufficient evidence of an intention to dedicate the right of way either expressly or by implication to public use.

*Apologies for the boring title but the facts of this case have caused an outbreak of smut at NL HQ which can only be cured by adopting a total poker face in respect of this serious and important matter.

About D

D is a solicitor specialising in landlord and tenant matters with a London firm.
Posted in Housing law - All, Uncategorized and tagged .

8 Comments

  1. Teehee

    Are you only reporting this case 11 year old case because it makes you chortle, or does it have some distinct up-to-date relevance?

    If the former, then I charge you all as Bustards ;)

    • Well it was new on BAILII and it raised a small, but wholly sensible and serious, smile. Although it is interesting in terms of its restatement of the law on implied rights of way.

    • As I am editor in name only and my suggested contributions to the post were disdained as not even worthy of Dick Emery, I can safely say I have no idea and will pass the question on, gratefully ;-)

    • NL,

      I am sure the public would be delighted to hear some of your commentary ;-)

  2. An interesting if somewhat inaccurate review of the case; the issue was a case concerning slander of title that was brought by S. Sweeney, Mr Crooks was defending himself against this allegation. The road in question serviced a fishery which pre-dated the building of Runkerry House, and the judge in question could not be convinced from the evidence presented that the 1865 presentment specifically referred to the section of the road in question.

  3. AMitchell, thanks for your comment but David’s review of the judgment is entirely accurate.

    The issue was trespass, not ‘slander of title’, and as you say, your view that the road pre-existed the House as a public right of way was not accepted by the judge.

  4. I suggest you re-read the detail of the case, the claim was that the original road to the slipway at Runkerry was a public right of way. This road was clearly delineated on OS maps which pre-dated the construction of Runkerry House and serviced the slipway from which tourists could take a boat to view the Causeway, the fishery, and a watermill. The Judge could not be convinced by the Presentment evidence that public money had been used specifically to repair that section of road claimed as a right of way, as the distances quoted in the presentment could not accurately be ascertained. There were other features which are available in the judgement, which along with Moyle Councils refusal to become involved effectively ended the opportunity for members of the public to hold Councils to their statutory duties under the Access to the Countryside Order.

    • Mannanon, we report the judgment and the note of the Court’s findings is accurate. We can’t go behind the judgment to the evidence presented, assuming that this was even evidence presented. As it appears that there was no appeal of this decision, I’m afraid the matter rests there.

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