News & Insights // The Sunday Times - Chained to the Church


Graham Norwood meets a couple who may have to pay £216,000 to fix a church roof. You could be next

Homeowners who live near churches that are in need of repair may face bills for thousands of pounds after a 17-year-long legal battle reaches its climax in the High Court this week.

Under a law dating back to medieval times, Andrew Wallbank, 66, and his wife, Gail, 59, could be ordered to contribute as much as £216,000 to the upkeep of St John the Baptist church in Aston Cantlow, near Stratford- upon-Avon. According to ecclesiastical tithe maps, their property — Glebe Farm, a six-bedroom, 14th-century house — has “chancel repair liability”, which means that its owners bear automatic responsibility for repairing the church’s chancel.

The Wallbanks inherited the property, with 179 acres of land, in two parcels in 1974 and 1986, but say they first learnt of their obligations in 1990, when they were presented with a bill for church repairs of £6,000.

The couple contested the demand, eventually winning their case in the Court of Appeal in 2001. The Church of England then took the case to the House of Lords, which two years later ruled against the Wallbanks. However, it postponed a decision on how much they should pay.

The repair bill, meanwhile, has jumped to more than £210,000, while the couple face another £200,000 or so in legal costs. What began as a £6,000 bill could end up costing them nearer half a million.

“If we must pay £216,000 and legal costs, we will have to sell our home,” says Andrew Wallbank, a former church warden at St John the Baptist. “But nobody will buy the place with this debt hanging over it.”

This week’s ruling will have implications not just for the Wallbanks, but also, potentially, for many homeowners across Britain. Last May, the Church Commissioners issued a note citing the Wallbank case asking Parochial Church Councils (PCCs) — the local bodies that levy charges — to conduct property audits in their areas.

ChancelCheck, a firm that conducts specialist searches into residential property, says PCCs in nine of the C of E’s 43 dioceses in England are now considering taking action against individual homeowners.

“In most cases, repair costs are likely to be hundreds or thousands of pounds, rather than hundreds of thousands,” says Nick Francis, co-founder of ChancelCheck. “But there may be some who will end up with bills similar to those facing the Wallbanks.

“We’re talking about at least 100,000 properties here, and their owners may not even know. Even if it doesn’t affect them immediately, it may stop their home being sold if buyers discover this liability.”

Conventional legal searches when houses are purchased are unlikely to pick up on this.

Properties in England that are most likely to be affected are period homes close to churches. Owners may have lived in them for years, yet be unaware of their potential status as “lay rectors”.

It is not just country properties that are affected, however. One vendor, who prefers to remain anonymous, is in the process of selling his four-bedroom house in Fulham, London, for £675,000. A search by the buyer’s solicitor revealed that the house has a potential chancel repair liability. “I had never heard of it before and didn’t even know where the church was,” he says. “The solictors wanted me to pay £100 indemnity insurance to remove the house from the liability, but I refused.” In his case, the buyers have not been put off the sale. Others, though, may be more wary.

Last year, the Law Society asked the government to abolish chancel charges, describing them as random and unpredictable because they fall due only when repairs are outstanding.

The government says merely that it is keeping the position under review. Under the Land Registration Act 2002, PCCs have only until October 2013 to register their interest with the Land Registry against any properties that they believe carry liability for repairs.

The C of E is unrepentant. In Aston Cantlow, Rev David Addley, vicar of St John the Baptist, says the Wallbanks have only themselves to blame. “The fact we’ve been negotiating for 17 years and haven’t reached agreement speaks volumes,” he says.

Rev Mervyn Roberts, spokesman for the Coventry diocese in which Aston Cantlow lies, says it will no longer negotiate with the couple.

“We’ve reached the hard cash question now — the talks are over,” he says. “This is clearly a critical test case, with ramifications for the Church as a whole. There may be widespread effects, but that remains to be seen.”

Andrew Wallbank is equally sure of his case’s significance. “We’re guinea pigs,” he says. “Others will follow. Tot up the roof repair costs for almost any church in the country, and you soon reach a big figure. Anyone in a house with a historic link to a church, even a tenuous one, is now vulnerable.”

How to protect yourself

Q: Will a routine legal search identify if a house has chancel charge liability?

A: No, because legal searches use Ordnance Survey maps — chancel charges are shown only on historic ecclesiastical tithe maps.

Q: So how do I know if my home is liable?

A: By checking with a specialist company, such as ChancelCheck (0870 013 0872, www.clsl.co.uk), Chancel Repair Searches (www.chancelrepairsearches.co.uk) or House Detectives (www.house-detectives.co.uk). Search costs start at about £11.75.

Q: Can I do my own research?

A: You can, but it is time-consuming. Contact the National Archives at Kew in west London (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk).

Q: What do I do if I find I am liable to pay for church repairs?

A: Insure against a charge. The cost will vary depending on your property’s size and term of insurance. Policies start at about £60 for a house with two acres, effective for 20 years.

© Times Newspapers Limited 2007