Do British Columbians Have the Right to Cross Private Land to Access a Public Lake?
The Court of Appeal sided with a private landowner in a dispute over public access to public land in reasons for judgment dated March 5, 2021: Douglas Lake Cattle Company v. Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club, 2021 BCCA 99.
According to the trial judgment, Douglas Lake Cattle Company is the largest private landowner in British Columbia and operates the province’s largest ranch.
In its ruling, B.C.’s highest court overturned the lower-court order, and held that the Douglas Lake Cattle Company has the right to block access to Crown-owned Stoney and Minnie lakes, which are within the ranch east of Merritt, B.C.
The litigation features an important policy debate about collective rights to the enjoy the great outdoors versus individual rights of exclusion where private property interests are engaged. Individual concerns may possibly include liability, forest fires, and vandalism.
Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club invited the Court of Appeal to recognize “a right to cross private land where it is necessary to do so to access a lake on land reserved to the Crown for the benefit of the public.”
The Court of Appeal observed that unlike other jurisdictions, such as in the United Kingdom and in other provinces in Canada, British Columbia does not have “public access legislation.” In other words, there is no right to cross private land in B.C. without permission of the owner or occupier, “except on a highway, pursuant to the Highway Act, or on an easement or right of way, registered in the Land Title Office.”
In B.C. landowners have more or less complete control over whether the public can enter their land.
The Court of Appeal implied that it was not the courts’ place to advocate for a right of public access to lakes on private land; rather, it has a responsibility to discern what the state of the law actually is.
As such, Douglas Lake Cattle Company was entitled to restrict access to the lakes and the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club, and others like it, have no statutory or common law right to cross the private property and fish in public lakes.