News & Insights // Find A Property - Chancel Liability - how an obscure medieval law could still hit homeowners today

Nikki Sheehan

Of all the things you've fantasised about spending a few hundred thousand pounds on, I bet doing up your local church isn't one of them.

So you can imagine how Gail and Andrew Wallbank, who live in Wales, felt when they received a letter demanding £6,000 to replace the windows of an ancient church inWarwickshire.

The source of the problem is a farm that the couple inherited from Gail's father, and which is let to her brother.

When Gail's father first bought the property in the late '60s, he noticed a clause in the deeds stating that the owner of the land was responsible for the upkeep of the chancel of the local church.

He queried this with the vicar, but was assured that it was an ancient law that was no longer enforceable, and nothing more was heard about it until 1990.

Then Mr and Mrs Wallbank, who had by now inherited the farm, received the news that, as the owners 'rectorial land' (land that once belonged to a medieval church), they are deemed 'lay rectors' and are liable for the upkeep of the area near the altar known as the chancel.

Wallbanks vs the Parochial Church Council of Aston Cantlow

"We were very surprised," says Andrew Wallbank. "We said that if they removed the legal obligation we would be happy to make a donation to the church. But they refused.

"We never dreamt it would lead to this long running problem." Over the past 17 years the case of the Wallbanks vs the Parochial Church Council of Aston Cantlow has been in and out of court.

Initially the High Court found them liable for the chancel repair costs, but the Appeal Court overturned this, ruling that the law was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The church then appealed to the House of Lords who decided that a PCC (Parochial Church Council) is exempt from human rights laws, and so the Wallbanks must pay up.

Judgement Day

Because of further degeneration of the building over the past 17 years, and the legal costs incurred by both sides, the couple's potential bill, which will be decided this week, has now risen to around £420,000.

In order to pay the Wallbanks, who have seven children, will have to sell the farm in Warwickshire, though, as Andrew Wallbank points out, while it has the chancel liability attached to it the property is unsaleable.

"By trying to challenge this law we seem to have firmly established it," says Andrew Wallbank, who, ironically, is a church warden at his local parish in Wales.

3.5 million acres of land in England and Wales, and the homes, schools, hospitals and factories built on it, are now thought tbe potentially at risk from this archaic law.

You don't have to live near a church, or in the countryside (many urban parishes, such as Fulham in London are at risk), and liability is unlikely to be noted on your deeds or at the Land Registry.

Chancel Check

So what would the Wallbanks advise anyone buying a new house to do?

"Get your solicitor to check. It's not easy athe records often aren't correct, and it's difficult to say how extensive the problem really is, but it could have serious implications for a lot of people."

Off the back of the Wallbanks' case at least once company has been set up that will ascertain your risk, and provide insurance policies to protect you in the event of a claim by the church.

Nick Francis, from the company Chancel Check, says that in the past carrying out a full chancel repair search was simply too complex, and the risk too obscure, so solicitors didn't bother.

But, according to Francis, 35 per cent of parishes are at risk, and, of all the full searches Chancel Check has carried out 14 per cent have been found to be on liable land.

This service is not available to the public, but a general search can be accessed by conveyancers for £10 plus VAT, and an indemnity policy is available from £69.88 for 25 years' cover.

The Future - Count Down To 2013

Some believe the risk is being exaggerated by those with a vested interest. Francis, naturally, disagrees, pointing out that the PCC would have dropped the case when the Wallbanks won at appeal if they weren't interested in setting a precedent.

"We're aware of eight dioceses that have instructed the PCCs to look into it," says Francis. "Members of the PCCs actually have a duty to find these funds, or they could become potentially personally liable."

Under the Land Registration Act 2002 the church has until 30 September 2013 to hunt down and register chancel repair liabilities at the Land Registry.

The good news is that if they are not registered by then, and the proprty changes hands, any liabilities will become unenforceable.

Current owners will, however, remain liable, though Nick Francis believes that the likelihood of being targeted after this date will decrease.

There are an estimated 5,200 churches in England and Wales that could benefit from funds raised from chancel repair liability, so over the next six years we can expect a flurry of activifrom the PCCs.

Goodbye Grants

Maintaining crumbling historical buildings is an expensive business, and, following on from this case, the usual sources of grants, such as English Heritage, may now refuse pay up where there is a chancel repair liability.

Steve Jenkins, Press Officer from the Church of England, says: "Churches are charitable bodies and they have a duty to look after a building that is, in many cases, part of the history of the country.

"It's up to each individual church if they take it up or not. But it's something that rarely causes discord. We welcome the fact that such liabilities are now being recorded through the Land Registry.

Meanwhile, depending on next week's decision on the Wallbank's case, Gail and Andrew Wallbank may be looking for a buyer for their Warwickshire farm.

It comes with beautiful views, all mod cons, and one particularly unusual feature - ongoing 'blank cheque book' bills for repairs to the local church.

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