News & Insights // Medieval Menace - Property Owners Beware

The sad plight of a couple forced to sell their home in the face of a £230,000 bill for the repair of a nearby church highlights the risk of buying a property without sound legal advice, according to B P Collins property partner Michael Larcombe.

Andrew and Gail Wallbank were stung by the request for payment by St John the Baptist Church at Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire, upon inheriting the picturesque farmhouse in which they live. The Church relied on the fact that the farmhouse was burdened by liability to maintain the chancel of the church. Fighting the repair bill through the Courts, the House of Lords ultimately rejected the Wallbanks' contention that they were not liable to pay the levy, which has its roots in a medieval practice obliging parishioners to contribute to the cost of repairs to the local church chancel (the part over the altar). The couple announced yesterday that they had no choice but to sell their farm.

"This is a very unfortunate situation," says Mr Larcombe. "The Wallbanks fell victim to an outdated rule of law which, despite the Law Society's best efforts, remains enforceable. Homebuyers - indeed all property owners - should be made aware that this obligation still exists and may apply in more than 5,000 parishes in England and Wales.

 "There is as yet no requirement for the obligation to be registered against a property's title. A special chancel repair search will reveal any potential liability. However, the only sure way of a buyer protecting him or herself is for them to take out insurance to cover the risk. This is relatively inexpensive - usually a fraction of one percent of the property value."

 Having fought the liability for 18 years Wallbanks are planning to sell Glebe Farm at auction in October.