News & Insights // My property nightmare: an ancient liability

How to deal with tricky situations. This week: a sale falls through when buyers fear they will be hit with a bill for church repairs.

This summer, after a long legal battle, the House of Lords ruled that Gail and Andrew Wallbank, farmers who had inherited Glebe Farm in Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire, were liable to pay £95,000 towards repairs to their local church - overturning a previous judgment in the Court of Appeal that the demand was unfair and arbitrary, and contravened the Human Rights Act.

The Wallbanks had been caught by an ancient law that requires the owners of glebe land to pay for chancel repairs. It is enshrined in the 1932 Chancel Repairs Act but the practice pre-dates the Reformation.

In recent years, few individual homeowners have been asked for their share, and the House of Lords judgment has sent shock waves through village England. People living near a parish church now wonder if they are about to be handed a large bill for repairs, and for anyone trying to sell a house close to a church the ruling is a concern.

Lorna and Robert McCurrach encountered endless problems when they tried to sell their house in Essex this summer. "The worry over chancel repairs gave us sleepless nights," says Robert. "I am retired and we wanted to move to Devon. At one point we thought we wouldn't be able to sell the house at all."

The couple's home comprised a pair of mid-Victorian cottages that were not even very close to the church. They bought their home knowing there was a covenant covering chancel repairs, but were assured that it would never be invoked. "The estate agent told us there was a nearby village where almost every house had such a covenant, and no one had ever been asked for any money," says Robert.    "As a precaution we were able to take over the insurance policy that the vendors had arranged to indemnify themselves against any claim for chancel repairs. The premiums didn't amount to much because the insurance company never expected to have to pay out."
However, after the House of Lords judgment, the solicitors acting for the McCurrachs' buyers suddenly started to take the chancel repairs issue very seriously. The buyers' building society took fright and asked for a tenfold increase in the insurance cover. The sale nearly fell through.

"It was such a worry," says Robert. "We accepted an offer at the beginning of June. Because we were moving into rented accommodation we could have exchanged almost immediately, but it took us until the beginning of August to sort everything out."

In the end, the matter was resolved when the McCurrachs proved that any bill for chancel repairs would be relatively small because the church itself is quite modest. This brought the cost of the indemnity policy down to a reasonable level and the sale went ahead.
Derek Wellman, vice chairman of the Ecclesiastical Law Association and registrar of the diocese of Lincoln, says:

"In the Wallbank case the parish council had no option because English Heritage had turned them down for a grant on the grounds that there was another source of funds available for church repairs. In most cases, it is the church commissioners or an Oxbridge college which have this ancient liability, and most parish councils are reluctant to ask individual homeowners to contribute because it seems unfair and the church gets a bad press. "The liability to pay for chancel repairs mainly affects rural communities, but it can apply in towns and cities, especially where ancient settlements now form part of larger urban conurbations. A liability for chancel repairs isn't always in the title deeds. Anyone buying a house near a church should have a specialist search done at the Records of Ascertainment at the Public Record Office in Kew. However, even this may not give a definitive answer because it is often difficult to reconcile a modern Ordnance Survey map with the old tithe maps.

"The Government has recognised that this ancient liability to pay for chancel repairs needs reform. Under the Land Registration Act 2002, parochial church councils have 10 years from October 13, 2003 to register any liability for repairs with the Land Registry. After that only those that are registered can be enforced, which will put an end to the current uncertainty. Until then, homeowners should be wary because that cherished view of their local parish church just might come with a price tag attached."

Daily Telegraph