News & Insights // The Times - Medieval minefield


Your house could fall prey to an obscure law, says John Naish

Shelia Rickards thought she had her Brighton house sale neatly wrapped up when, at the last minute, she received a surprise demand that she spend nearly £200 insuring the property against an obscure medieval obligation to fund repairs to her local church. It’s something that many thousands of other house-sellers may have to expect as a result of a new clause planned for the Government’s information packs that come in next June — and the efforts of an ambitious company that has spotted a legal gap in the market.
Rickards had agreed the sale in December, as she wanted a quick deal freeing her to join her daughter in Australia. “Just as we were about to exchange contracts, my buyer’s solicitor sent me another form. It said, ‘This property has a potential chancel repair liability’ and asked if I had indemnity insurance. The solicitor also sent an insurance policy which asked for £193 for 25 years’ cover.”
Chancel repair liability is a legal leftover from the Middle Ages that enables some parishes to call upon owners of properties on former church or glebe land to fund repairs to their church buildings. Many parishes gave up or sold this right over the centuries, but up to 5,000 may still be able to claim it.
About 500,000 properties may be affected. In law it is classed as an “over-riding interest” — even if it’s not on your house documents or recorded at the Land Registry (and it probably isn’t), affected homeowners may still be liable.
Chancel repair liability languished in legal obscurity until 2003, when the parish church of Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire, demanded £95,260 for repair work from the owner of a house that had a long-known chancel repair liability.

The owners fought the case to the House of Lords, where the Church of England won on appeal. The problem prompted a typical British compromise — the Government gave churches until 2013 to register chancel repair rights with the Land Registry. After that date, any unregistered right will cease to exist after the house has changed hands.
“My conveyancer had never heard of this,” says Rickards. “I object to having to pay the money. But I just want to get on with the sale. The insurance money will be taken out of the sale price by the buyer’s solicitors when they complete. I’ve written to my MP to complain.”
Her letter is unlikely to stop the rise of chancel repair liability. The Government plans to include a question about it in the new home information packs, and solicitors are being warned that they may be liable if they fail to ask homeowners to insure against liability.
A company called ChancelCheck identifies areas where medieval tithes may still apply — and then offers to insure homeowners against church repair bills for the next 20 years.
Matt le Breton, co-founder of Kent-based ChancelCheck, says he set up the company to capitalise on the fact that discovering whether your house is liable for chancel repair payments is a complex business. Only homes built on certain plots within certain ancient parish boundaries could be hit. To find the answer means negotiating an array of arcane reports and maps in the Public Record Office at Kew. ChancelCheck’s database can, however, quickly discover if you are in a problem parish.

Le Breton says: “About 1.4 million conveyances are done a year in Britain. It’s impossible for all the conveyancers and solicitors to go into Kew to check this. Our technology makes it possible for them to check it as part of a house sale. We believe that they must do this or face being sued by owners if the church suddenly lands them with a repair bill.”
For £11.75, ChancelCheck’s mapping system puts your modern plot on the historical parish boundary to see if a church could still hit you for repairs. “It doesn’t matter if you live in a rural or urban area — the risk is the same,” le Breton claims. If there are potentially liable plots in your parish, you can ignore this fact, insure against it with ChancelCheck or investigate whether your house is on a liable plot. But you don’t really want to take the latter route, according to le Breton. “We’re talking about a medieval law, so it may not be 100 per cent accurate. If you find out that you are on a plot with tithe liability, your solicitor is bound under the Land Registration Act 2002 to put that on your property’s title. So you would be doing the Church’s work for it, and then ChancelCheck would not insure you.”
The Church of England was unable to clarify matters. “It’s not the national Church of England doing this, it’s the local Church of England,” says a spokesman. “The national Church has no overview of what individual parishes decide.”
Each parish has its own property rights. Allyson Colby, a legal expert, says some parishes are pursuing those rights: “I know a solicitor in Worcester whom the Church has instructed to put claims in for as many chancel repair liability titles as he can,” she says. “Some areas are happy to try to enforce their rights. Some are not. It’s the luck of the draw where you live.”
 

GRAVEFACTS

  • The National Archives leaflet on researching chancel repair liability is at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
  • Landowners can “buy out” chancel repair liability using a statutory procedure set out in the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure 1923, but it is seldom used and is regarded as slow and expensive.
  • You can pay the Public Record Office to do a personal search of the National Archives for £135.
  • ChancelCheck: 0870 0130872, www.clsl.co.uk