News & Insights // Farm must bear cost of church repairs

A high court judge yesterday upheld an obscure law and ordered a Warwickshire couple to foot the £96,000 bill for repairing the chancel of their local church because their farm was a "rectorial property", making them "lay rectors".

With interest and legal costs Andrew Wallbank, 59, and his wife Gail, 52, face a total bill of more than £130,000. To meet the bill, Mr Wallbank said they would probably be forced to sell the farm.

The parochial church council of the parish of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley sued the Wallbanks, who own the tenented 176-acre Glebe Farm, Aston Cantlow, for the cost of repairs to the Church of St John the Baptist.

In a case watched closely by landowners throughout the country, the church claimed it was the duty of lay rectors to pay for repairs to the chancel.

At the high court in London yesterday Mr Justice Ferris ruled that the Wallbanks, who live at a sheep farm in Powys, central Wales, are liable to pay for the repairs under the provisions of the little heard of Chancel Repairs Act of 1932. The judged dismissed the Wallbanks' argument that under the European Convention on human rights provisions that "every natural or legal person is entitled to peaceful enjoyment of his possessions" and that "no one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to conditions provided for by law", exonerated them from liability.

The judge said the 1932 act had been subject to severe criticism. In 1985, the law commission called it "anachronistic and capricious" and recommended legislation under which the liability to repair the chancel would be extinguished after 10 years. The report had never been acted on. The judge made an order for payment by the couple for whatever sum an inquiry found due. They were refused leave to appeal but could renew the application in the appeal court.

The church had claimed that in order to ward off the claim the Wallbanks had to prove that it had been a custom in the parish "since time immemorial" that someone other than the lay rectors had paid for chancel repairs. With one exception, the lay rectors had always paid.    After the hearing Mr Wallbank, who married his wife in the church, said they had known there was something in the deeds relating to chancel repair liability but had not thought it was enforceable. "This was when my father-in-law bought the farm in 1970 but he was not unduly concerned about it. He always thought it was an old custom and regarded it as a purely voluntary arrangement.

"I think that as a result of this we shall be forced to sell the property to raise the money to pay. However, that in itself is going to be a problem with this liability hanging over it."

Lawrence Mortimer, a spokesman for the diocese of Coventry, said: "The parish had to bring this action because until the lay rectorship position was totally clarified, they couldn't get any financial support [for repairs] from any other agency. It's one of those cases where there are no good guys or bad guys. No one can blame the couple trying to sort it out without having to pay huge sums of money."