News & Insights // Landowner must pay for £95,000 church repairs

A landowner was told by a High Court judge yesterday that he must honour an ancient liability to pay for repairs to the chancel of a 13th century village church, estimated at £95,000.

Andrew Wallbank, 59, failed in his attempt to persuade Mr Justice Ferris that the legal burden attached to his 176-acre farm contravened his human rights under European law. He now says he may have to sell the farm, which is leased to tenants, to pay the charge, settlement of which is being demanded in full by the vicar and parochial church council.

The dispute directly affects the parish of St John the Baptist in Aston Cantlow, Warkwickshire, but it is viewed as a test case with implications for up to 5,200 parishes. These are ones which retain a lay rectorship, an ancient title tied either to an individual's ownership of land or to an organisation's past rights to receive tithe rents raised on Church property.

Mr Wallbank, a father of seven, lives with his wife, Gail, at Caersws, Powys, but the couple also own Glebe Farm in Aston Cantlow, which Mrs Wallbank inherited from her father. She had been made aware by him of the land's history and relation to the Church, but he had told her that he believed it was a "gentleman's agreement" implying a voluntary agreement to help out with repairs. The farm is a "rectorial property" which makes the Wallbanks "lay rectors". Ancient custom, buttressed by the Chancel Repairs Act 1932, makes those holding such a title liable for maintenance of the church chancel. Surveyors say that roof and wall repairs at the church are now overdue and John Martin, a churchwarden, said that, as custodians, the PCC had no option but to ask the Wallbanks to pay.

Mr Wallbank's lawyers argued that the obligation amounted to a "deprivation of possessions" and could not be justified under the European Human Rights Convention. But the judge ruled that, while the Act has been described as an"unsightly blot" on English jurisprudence and "anachronistic and capricious" in the modern world, it remained a feature of common law.

While expressing "considerable sympathy" for the Wallbanks, he made an order that they should pay whatever sum is deemed to be due by an inquiry into the condition of the chancel. Mr Wallbank said that he intended to apply to the Court of Appeal for leave to have the case reconsidered and, if he failed there, to submit it to the European Court of Human Rights. Mr Martin said that the PCC, had no option but to insist on payment. He said: "We have a responsibility to maintain the fabric of our church. Mr and Mrs Wallbank could easily take out a mortgage to raise the money." But Mr Wallbank said: "With six of our children either at school or university, my family needs that money. It is possible that selling the farm will be the only answer."

By Terence Shaw and Maurice Weaver