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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 the three publications at the bottom of the page.


Unformed legal roads

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

The courts have confirmed that land identified on official survey plans as a road is legal, even if it has not been set out and pegged on the ground or formed in any way.

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

Most ULRs were established by the early Crown settlement subdivisions in the 19th century. Many of these roads were never formed. Some roads formed in the past are no longer maintained by the responsible territorial authority and have or are reverting to nature. Early surveys also reserved land alongside the coast, rivers and lakes for public use. Some of these areas remained reserves, but many were surveyed as unformed legal roads.

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There are thousands of kilometres of unformed legal road

The extent of ULR in New Zealand is estimated to total approximately 56,000 kilometres.

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Unformed legal roads have the same legal status as formed roads.

ULRs are no different in law from formed roads. Most have a nominal width of one chain (20.12) metres. The public has a perpetual right to pass and repass over these ULRs — on foot, on a horse, or in vehicles — without being obstructed or hindered. However, users of these roads must consider others, including adjoining landholders and their property. The general rules of the road apply, and the powers to manage the roads are vested in the territorial authority.

ULRs may be unsuitable for vehicle use, horses and even for walking in some instances because of the topography that the road alignment traverses.

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Unformed legal roads are not part of the farm or forest

Adjoining landholders use many ULRs as part of existing pasture or forestry and, therefore, may be indistinguishable from the surrounding land. Territorial authorities have long accepted this use of URLs.

To manage, protect and contain livestock, a landholder may construct gates and cattle stops across ULRs, but only with the territorial authority’s written permission.

Any gates erected across a road must not be locked, and a board with the words “Public Road” legibly printed must be affixed to each side of the gate.

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 in favour of the adjoining landholder.

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

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Adjoining landholders cannot stop you from using an unformed legal road

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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Your local territorial authority is responsible for administering unformed legal roads

Responsibility for administering ULRs lies with the relevant territorial authority (a district or city council).

Herenga ā Nuku continues to work with territorial authorities, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) and others to facilitate and resolve URL issues.

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Problems with access along an unformed legal road

Problems include:

  • uncertainty about the exact location of the road
  • impassable obstructions
  • livestock on the land that is intimidating to users, and
  • adjoining landholders objecting to public use of the URL.

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

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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Publications with more information

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