News & Insights // Couple Facing Ruin over £1/2m church repair bill

Law Lords Rule that ancient law on who pays for upkeep must stand.

When Gail Wallbank Inherited a farm belonging to her late father, she thought of it as a welcome retirement nest egg. But now she and her husband Andrew face ruin over the £1.5 million.

They have been hit with a £500,000 bill because of an ancient law which makes owners of Glebe Farm responsible for upkeep of the local church.

With their welcome inheritance, the Wallbanks unwittingly took on the liability as "lay rectors" of the 12th century St John the Baptist church.
They had no idea that the medieval law - now known as the 1932 Chancel Repairs Act - applied to their property in the Warwickshire village of Aston Cantlow.

Mr Wallbank, 64, and his 57 year old wife first learned of the responsibility in 1990 when they say the church - which has a congregation of just 25 - asked them for £6,000 to repair the chancel.

Believing the law no longer existed they refused to pay, but by 1997 the figure had soared to over £95,000 and the couple launched a legal battle to contest the claim.

In 2000, the High Court found in favour of the church but a year after the Court of Appeal backed the couple.

Then in June last year, the Church of England went to the House of lords, which ruled that the medieval law still stood and ordered the Wallbanks, who lease the arable farm and live on a sheep farm 60 mules away in Carno, Powys, to pay up. The church now claims the amount needed for repairs has more than doubled to £230,000.

In addition, the couple, who have seven children, estimate their legal costs will be at least £250,000.

The case is due to be heard in the High Court again in March because the parties can not agree on the repair bill.

"We have offered them £23,000 because we believe that is what it will cost for repairs to keep out the wind and rain, which is all we believe a lay rector should be responsible for," said Mr Wallbank yesterday.

"I don't know how they've reached their new figure of £230,000. It seems as if they are trying to think of as many things as possible while they have got us".

He continued: "We knew of an historic link to the church but we were unsure of the details and thought it had expired. My father-in-law thought it was a gentlemanly agreement rather than an enforceable one.

"We'd have happily made a voluntary contribution but a compulsory bill was unexpected.

"We were told it would initially be about £6000. Even if we'd paid it then, I don't think it would have solved the situation - the church would have just kept asking for more. We will have to sell Glebe Farm to pay the £500,000 but it is unsellable with this law attached."    The Reverend Mervyn Roberts, who is responsible for the Coventry diocese which includes the church, said: "The Wallbanks knew they had this sword hanging over them 14 years ago.

If they had settled at the start, the scale of the problem would have been much smaller."

John Martin, churchwarden at St John the Baptist, said: "The Church of England has asked us to pursue this matter because it is not just our parish but affects the Church as a whole".

About 5000 people and institutions are also lay rectors of the church of England. Like the Wallbanks, they are legally obliged to pay for repairs.

At the House of Lords, the Wallbanks argued that their obligation to pay was unenforceable because it contravened the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Law Lords, however, ruled that such an argument did not apply in the case of a parochial church council because it was not a core public authority.

In making the ruling, one of the Law Lords, Lord Nicholls, said the case concerned "one of the more arcane and unsatisfactory areas of the law".

By Charlotte Gill