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Unformed Legal Roads

People are often unsure about the legal status of unformed legal roads, colloquially known as paper roads.

This page answers common questions about unformed legal roads and people’s rights and responsibilities when using and managing them.

For more detailed information, check out these two publications:

*Best practice’ guidelines document currently under review


What is an unformed legal road?

An unformed legal road (ULR) — sometimes known colloquially as a paper road — is a parcel of land that has been legally designated as a road but has not been formed. Formed means physically constructed and includes gravelling, metalling, sealing or permanently surfacing the road.

The courts have ruled that land included in official survey plans as road is legally road even if it has not been pegged out on the ground and not formed in any way. In short, from a legal perspective, ULRs are as good as any other road.

The term “paper road” is often used interchangeably with ULR. Herenga ā Nuku does not use the term paper road as this implies that the road has less status than formed roads.

Most ULRs came into existence in the original subdivision of land by the Crown in the 19th century for sale to settlers. When subdividing the land, surveyors provided roads to enable access to the land being sold. Many of these roads were never formed. Some roads formed in the past are no longer maintained by the responsible territorial authority and have reverted to being unformed. The early surveys also reserved land alongside the coast, rivers and lakes for public use and designated this land as a road.

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How much unformed legal road is there in New Zealand?

The amount of ULR in New Zealand is estimated to be around 56,000 kilometres. The proportion of ULR varies considerably from local authority to local authority.

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What status do unformed legal roads have?

ULRs are no different in law from formed roads. Almost all have a nominal width of 20 metres, implying that they can be used by vehicles. The public has the right to use them on foot, on a horse, or in vehicles without hindrance from the adjoining landholder or anyone else. However, users of these roads must consider others, including adjoining landholders and their property. The general rules of the road apply and territorial authorities have powers to manage the roads.

ULRs may be unsuitable for vehicle use and even for walking because of the topography that they traverse.

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Are unformed legal roads part of the farm or forest?

No, but many ULRs are used by landholders as part of existing adjoining pasture or forestry and may be indistinguishable from the surrounding land. The administering authorities have long accepted this use of the land. It is often a practical solution to weed control on the land, which would otherwise be a cost to ratepayers.

Farmers may put gates or cattle stops across roads that are not fenced for livestock control purposes. Gates may only be placed with the permission of the relevant territorial authority, may not be locked and must have a sign indicating that they are on a public road.

The use of the land by adjoining landholders does not affect the legal right of the public to use the roads and does not create any legal right to the road by the adjoining landholder.

In practice, many roads are traversed by farm fences and may have trees, hedges or even buildings on them. These occasionally present problems when the public wishes to use the ULR.

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Can an adjoining landholder stop me from using an unformed legal road?

No. However, people wanting to use a ULR for access need to consider any practical issues that may need to be resolved.

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Who is responsible for administering unformed legal roads?

Responsibility for administering ULRs lies with the relevant territorial authority (a district or city council). Territorial authorities sometimes face practical difficulties in applying the legislation relating to ULRs. Some ULRs are not readily available for practical use because they are difficult to identify on maps or hard to locate on the ground because of a lack of signage.

Herenga ā Nuku is working with territorial authorities, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) and others to clarify some management issues.

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What should I do if access along an unformed legal road is blocked or objected to?

Problems can arise, such as:

  • uncertainty about the location of the road
  • practically impassable obstructions
  • livestock on the land that is intimidating to users, and
  • objection by the adjoining landholder.

Private property must not be damaged, even if it is blocking access on a ULR. You should contact the relevant territorial authority. These problems may require patience and consideration to resolve. In the first instance, you should approach the adjoining landholder.

You may need to contact the relevant territorial authority if this doesn't work.

Ultimately it is the responsibility of the territorial authority to resolve these problems. Herenga ā Nuku may be in a position to mediate in some circumstances.

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