News & Insights // The Times - Couple face £200,000 bill from ancient church law

Frances Gibb, Legal Editor

A couple who lost a seven-year legal battle against an ecclesiastical law that required them to pay the cost of repairs to an ancient parish church were ordered to meet the final demand for more than £200,000 yesterday.

The initial bill presented to Andrew and Gail Wallbank for restoration of St John the Baptist Church in Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire, was about £95,000.

After a series of legal challenges, including a hearing at the House of Lords in June 2003, the cost of the work being commissioned by the parish council of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley has more than doubled.

At a High Court hearing in London yesterday to assess the extent of the couple’s liability, Mr Justice Lewison reached a figure of £186,969, plus VAT on some but not all the items in the repair schedule.

The Wallbanks own Glebe Farm, in Aston Cantlow. The site includes a field called Clanacre, which is classified as rectorial property, making them “lay rectors” of the parish.

The couple, who also have a sheep farm in Carno, Powys, became liable for restoration costs under the Chancel Repairs Act 1932, which is based on centuries-old law.

The Act has been widely criticised as unfair and the Law Society of England and Wales has called for it to be reformed.

After the judgment, Mrs Wallbank, 59, said: “The Church of England has made it inevitable that we will have to sell Clanacre Farm. The law is in a mess. The Church is not living by its teaching and is hiding behind an archaic law.

“We have stood against it for 17 years in all, during which we have been bullied and have even had the bailiffs round.” None of the repairs to the church has yet been carried out.

Mr Wallbank, 66, said that they were caught in a vicious circle because no one would buy the farm with the church repair liability attached to it, and yet to get rid of the liability they would have to pay money for repair costs that might arise in the distant future.

In the House of Lords, the Wallbanks lost their claim that their obligation to pay for church repairs was unenforceable because it contravened the Human Rights Act.

The law lords’ decision reversed a ruling by the Court of Appeal that the liability of lay owners of former “glebe” land to provide money towards the cost of repairs to the chancel of the parish church operated in an arbitrary and unfair way.

The appeal judges had ruled that the liability was a form of taxation that did not meet the basic standard set by human rights laws protecting citizens’ possessions from the demands of the State.

Yesterday the Wallbanks said that the church authorities were demanding “a Rolls-Royce job when more limited repair work would suffice”. They argued that the extent of their liability towards repair costs should be limited to keeping the chancel — the area surrounding the altar — wind and waterproof. They relied on a church law website for this defence, but Mr Justice Lewison said that it was “unfortunately not the law”.

He said that Mr Wallbank, in arguing that the action against them was “anachronistic and unfair”, had said that the Church should stick to its teaching — that “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb”. The Wallbanks had the Law Commission, the Law Society and “many distinguished academics” on their side, the judge said. “But the courts must take the law as they find it.”

After the judgment, the Wallbanks said that to meet the demands of the Church they had tried to make a gift of the ancient glebe land, but this was not accepted. The church authorities would be able to “inflict this misery on thousands of other affected people”, they said. Mr Wallbank said that he and his wife were not the only owners of rectoral land at Aston Cantlow but, as far as he knew, none of the others had faced such demands. He added that some other dioceses had written off the financial liabilities of lay rectors.

The Wallbanks, who have already had to pay more than £100,000 in legal costs for earlier court hearings, were also ordered to pay the costs of yesterday’s proceedings.

© Times Newspapers Limited 2007