News & Insights // Couple released from medieval debt

This article was written after the Wallbank's won the Court of Appeal case. They did of course go on to lose the case at the House of Lords.
A man and wife who found themselves bound by medieval canon law to repair the chancel of a 13th century village church have escaped a bill of £95,000 thanks to the Human Rights Act.

Andrew and Gail Wallbank won their appeal yesterday against a High Court ruling that they should pay the cost of repairing the village church of St John the Baptist in Aston Cantlow, Warks. The ruling means that parochial church councils will no longer be able to extract "arbitrary" sums from local landowners.

Mr Wallbank, 60, and his 53-year-old wife acquired a farmhouse in the village in 1974. Glebe Farm was built on glebe land whose owners since 1743 have been "lay rectors" of the parish. As such, they were required to pay for chancel repairs.

In exchange for this burden, rectors were formerly entitled to receive tithes - the tenth of the product of the parishioners' labour - but these were abolished in 1936. The penalty for breach of the repairing obligation was formerly excommunication, backed up if necessary by committal by the High Court for contempt of the ecclesiastical court.    However, since 1932 a parochial church council has been entitled to sue reluctant lay rectors in the civil courts. In March last year, Mr and Mrs Wallbank were ordered to pay £95,260, the estimated cost of repairing the chancel at St John's. Once the Human Rights Act came into force last October, the couple appealed.

Yesterday the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Andrew Morritt, siting with Lord Justice Robert Walker and Lord Justice Sedley, held that the repair costs amounted to an arbitrary tax. This was because the Wallbanks's land "does not differ relevantly from any other freehold land, and secondly because the liability may arise at any time and be... in almost any amount".

As such, said the Court of Appeal, the taxation breached the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions - in this case, money. However, the Wallbanks will still have to pay their legal costs in the High Court because the case was correctly decided last year on the law as it then stood. Mr Wallbank said that would leave him £20,000 out of pocket. He added: "But on balance I'm very, very pleased that I have won. That's a much smaller figure than I feared we might have been in for. Had we lost, the consequences would have been many times that figure."

Mr Wallbank, who married in the church, added that when he was first approached about the repairs 11 years ago he did not know much about canon law. I felt totally amazed when we found ourselves in this predicament - that something as antiquated as this could rise up and bite you.

"We knew that there was a connection between the farm and the chancel but believed it was purely a gentlemen's agreement. It's only relatively recently that the church council found out that it was legally binding."

By Joshua Rozenberg, Legal Editor