News & Insights // Daily Telegraph - Couple face £200,000 bill under ancient law

By Joshua Rozenberg, Legal Editor

A couple who found themselves bound by medieval canon law to repair the chancel of a 13th-century village church were presented with a final demand in the High Court yesterday for more than £200,000.

Andrew and Gail Wallbank estimate that their 17-year legal battle over the cost of restoring the church of St John the Baptist in Aston Cantlow, Warks, has cost them a further £200,000 in legal costs.

The initial repair bill, presented in 2000, was about £95,000 but, after a legal challenge that ended in the House of Lords in June 2003, the cost of the work being commissioned by the parish council of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley has more than doubled.

At a hearing in London to assess the extent of the couple's liability, Mr Justice Lewison reached a figure of £186,969, plus VAT on some items in the repairs.

Mr Wallbank, 66, a retired sheep farmer, and his wife, 59, acquired Glebe Farm in Aston Cantlow in 1974. It included glebe land whose owners have been "lay rectors" of the parish since 1743. As such, they were required to pay for repairs to the chancel — the area surrounding the altar.

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 law lords ruled in 2003 that the Wallbanks had bought the farm land with full knowledge that they would be liable for repairs.

Yesterday, Mrs Wallbank said: "The Church of England has made it inevitable that we will have to sell Glebe Farm.

"The law is in a mess. The Church is not living by its teaching and is hiding behind an archaic law."

But, said Mr Wallbank, no one would buy the farm with the repair liability attached.

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