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The plot thickens! Even more complications have emerged about "Chancel repair liability" (CRL) - an almost forgotten law which could affect many properties in Tynedale.

The Hexham Courant carried an article last month about this ancient relic which arms some parishes with the right to demand church renovation funds from the owners of properties on former church land. Hexham solicitor Christine Billany offered a warning from the legal viewpoint.

"I have a number of clients around Tynedale who have had searches undertaken and their parishes have been identified as potentially holding CRL," she said.

And now the Rector of Humshaugh, the Rev Michael Thompson, is offering further information from the clergyman's standpoint.
Mr Thompson, who serves the parishes of Humshaugh with Simonburn and Wark, explains: "The chances of incurring CRL are greatly diminished if you buy within territory which was, between the 17th and early 19th centuries, served by a rector rather than a vicar.

"The difference between a rector and a vicar has been widely forgotten. A clergyman in an ancient parish who enjoyed the whole of the parish's church or 'tithe' income was styled 'rector' and with that income came duties for certain areas of church upkeep.

"A vicar was a clergyman employed - say by a monastery - to run the church for them while the monastery kept most of the income, so he didn't have to pay for repairs.

"Over the centuries these repair responsibilities have disappeared for clerical rectors. It's hard to put your finger on exactly when, but it must have been some time after the church at Wark was opened in 1818. Its chancel was built deliberately small, because the rector at that time was responsible for its upkeep," he said.    But if ordained rectors have lost their CRL, it could still be lurking in the parchments for those who own former church land. They could be lay rectors without knowing it.

Mr Thompson says that the complication dates back 500 years, from the time of King Henry VIII's Reformation of the Church of England.
When the monasteries were closed and everyone scrambled to buy church land going cheap, they also accepted the liabilities to keep the church repaired - that is, they became lay rectors.

Then in the 18th century, when much open land was enclosed, plots were given to the descendants of these lay tithe buyers, to compensate them for lost land and rights.

Mr Thompson says: "It is the purchase of land which was awarded after an enclosure, to a lay rector in lieu of a right to 'greater tithes', that carries the greatest risk of CRL today."

But even if you discover your property is subject to CRL, don't despair Mr Thompson explains: "The Chancel Repairs Act of 1932 gives the liable party an opportunity to raise questions as to the need for, extent and cost of the repairs.

"Also, a modern lay rector could raise questions about the degree to which their predecessors kept a chancel in good order. In some parishes there is ample evidence that the custom was to merely keep the structure wind-proof and water-tight," he said.

"In short, the existence of a CRL does not entitle a church council to assume that someone else is fully responsible for the costs of an elaborate restoration scheme. Having a lay rector is not all about making someone else repair the chancel of your church.    "I spent 13 years as vicar of an ancient parish church, during which time no claims for CRL were made. Nonetheless, we ensured that solicitors were reminded of the liability when land was sold and we informed interested parties of matters concerning the chancel," he said.
"In 20th century Lincolnshire, one lay rector successfully evaded CRL with a counter claim that a vicar had removed his customary seat from the chancel.

"In another case, a claim could not be made because the church council had caused damage to the chancel through the unauthorised use of emulsion paint, which had not allowed the ancient fabric to 'breathe' properly.

"But where the documentary evidence of liability is overwhelming, the existence of 20th century statutes on the subject render it unwise for the liable party to go to court claiming that the whole issue is archaic," warned Mr Thompson.

A Warwickshire landowner discovered this to his cost in 2004. He fought all the way to the House of Lords, but ended up having to pay more than £95,000 in CRL to help repair his local church. It was this recent test case which has breathed new life into the medieval law.
Now the Government plans to help home buyers avoid the CRL pitfall.

A question about CRL is planned for the new Home Information Packs (HIPs), due to be launched throughout the UK next year.
Also, solicitors are being warned that they may be liable if they fail to advise homeowners to insure against CRL.

To get up-to-date information on CRL, consult your solicitor, or check out an internet company called ChancelCheck®, which offers to identify areas where the old duty may still apply, and insure homeowners against church repair bills for 20 years.

The Hexham Courant