News & Insights // Norfolk Eastern Daily Press - Church repair bill timebomb

Householders across East Anglia may have to pay for repairs to parish churches - because of a law dating back to medieval times.

Legal experts warned last night that many parishes had a legal right to ask people to pay for repairs to a church's chancel - where the altar and choir stalls are - if the land where they live was once owned by the Church of England.

One expert said that cases of potential 'chancel repairs liability' had already emerged in Norwich and villages on the East Anglian coast.

Although the exact number of homes liable for chancel repairs is unclear, it is estimated that as many as one in three parishes in England and Wales have some legal claim to have their costs met.

But the true extent of parishes' rights to claim financial aid to help keep a chancel wind and rain-proof is likely to emerge in the next few years, after a change in the law in 2002.

The Land Registration Act (2002) obliged churches to register their legal claims over other properties by October 2013 or lose their rights - a move which could see parishes examine centuries-old records.

Some lawyers are already carrying out chancel repair liability searches as a matter of routine when dealing with the sale of houses.

Insurance companies are also beginning to offer chancel repair indemnity policies, to protect householders against the cost of claims from parishes for 25 years.

In 2003, the House of Lords upheld one parish's right to claim £95,000 from a family farm in Warwickshire.

Although the laws on chancel repairs stretch back to before the days of Henry VIII and the Reformation, parishes' rights were confirmed by the 1932 Chancel Repairs Act - although at that time an unknown number of landowners 'bought-out' their liability from the Church.

It is also understood that some parishes in England and Wales have already renounced their right to claim repair costs.

The Ven Clifford Offer, Archdeacon of Norwich, said he would be surprised if a significant number of parishes still had chancel repair rights.

"I think it's likely to be a smaller number of parishes than people fear," he said.

"The responsibility rests with the parochial church councils, and how many of those will want to do the research, I'm not sure.

"Certainly the information can be found, but I think it's quite a lengthy process.

"When you come down to the House of Lords case, it came down to individuals. But for many of these chancels, the liability rests with corporate bodies.

"For example, the Dean and Chapter of Norwich have responsibility for 20 chancels and some of the big Cambridge colleges also have liabilities for chancels.

"That's the difficulty - some bodies are better placed to meet these liabilities than some individuals."

Asked whether a parish in Norfolk was likely to exercise its rights under chancel repairs, the archdeacon said: "It poses an interesting question.

"If there is a liability and [parishes] realise they have a duty as trustees to maximise their income, they almost have a duty to follow it through.

"But it's a matter of law and legal liability - that's the difficulty."

Sarah Franks, head of residential property at the law firm in Mills and Reeve, said the issue was of likely to be of growing "relevance" in the next few years.

"For a very long time, few people took notice of the issue and it is still a very muddy area," Mrs Franks said.

"But the likelihood is that some churches will start to look back through their records in the next few years to see if they have any interests that need to be registered.

"It can be anywhere. People seem to think it only applies to rectories - or houses in streets called "rectory close" or something like that. But it doesn't necessarily work in that way. It doesn't even need to be a property in the locality of a church - we've come across liabilities in all sorts of places.

"We know, for example, that there are places in Norwich and some places along the coast that have potential liabilities."

Chris Hall, president of the National Association of Estate Agents, added: "It is an increasing issue but generally it's not having an effect on house prices. But the advice is beware - there probably is a property somewhere that will cost someone."

But the issue of chancel repairs also comes amid wider concerns about the availability of public funding to keep churches in a good state of repair.

Malcolm Crowder , of the Norwich Preservation Trust, said: "Quite frankly, for any historic building, finding funding is becoming increasingly difficult.

"Churches do have some help in the tax rules in the form of repairs being zero-rated for VAT, but nevertheless, funding is very restricted and tight and very difficult to find for any structure, whether ecclesiastical or not."