A couple who inherited a house with an ancient duty to repair the parish church are facing a ruinous £500,000 bill - and thousands more could be affected, reports Graham Norwood.

Andrew and Gail Wallbank from Warwickshire are facing a bill of nearly £500,000 because of an ancient law that makes them responsible for the upkeep of their local church.

The Wallbanks own Glebe Farm, a six-bedroom house dating from the 14th century, with 170 acres of land on the edge of the village of Aston Cantlow. Gail's father bought the property in 1970 and the couple inherited it in the late 1980s. "We knew of a historic link to the church, but we were unsure of details and thought it had expired," says Andrew, 64, a farmer. "To our knowledge, the family didn't have any notification that it was enforceable when the property was bought 34 years ago."

The land was originally owned by a monastery. After the Reformation it passed into private ownership, with a caveat that whoever bought Glebe Farm automatically became a "lay rector" with financial responsibility for repairing the 13th-century chancel of St John the Baptist Church.

"The first we knew of the severity of the problem was in 1990, when we received a letter asking us to pay for work on the chancel. We were told it would initially be about £6,000. We'd have happily made a voluntary contribution, but a compulsory bill was unexpected," says Andrew.

By 1997, the repair bill had rocketed to more than £95,000. The couple contested the claim and went through a High Court hearing that found in favour of the church in 2000 and an appeal in 2001 that went in favour of the Wallbanks. Last year the Church of England took the case to the House of Lords, which ruled that the couple must pay up. Ominously, the ruling said the church was entitled to reassess the work that had to be done. "I don't know how they've reached their new figure, but we're now told that it's £230,000," says Andrew. "The parochial church council seems to be seeking renovation of the building rather than simply repair of the chancel." He also has to pay the legal costs for a decade of court cases, which he says are likely to be at least £250,000.

The church is unrepentant. "The Wallbanks knew they had this sword hanging over them 14 years ago. If they had settled at the start, the scale of the problem would have been much smaller," says the Rev Mervyn Roberts, who has responsibility for the Coventry diocese of the Church of England, including the Aston Cantlow parish.

About 5,000 parishes throughout Britain have "lay rectors" living in houses that in centuries past were occupied by village clergy or linked in some other way to the local church. Under the Land Registration Act 2002, churches have until 2013 to nominate any houses they believe carry liability for repairs with the Land Registry. After that date, only registered claims can be enforced.

People who have inherited properties from their families or have lived in the buildings for many decades may be unaware of the potential problem. If you are interested in buying a property of this kind, you can commission a chancel repair search at the National Archives in Kew, London, for £135.

"The usual sources for conveyancing searches - local councils and Companies House - tend not to detail any liability for chancel repairs, so this separate search could save an unsuspecting purchaser tens of thousands of pounds," says John Davies of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, which advises estate agents on the issue. However, it is not 100% certain that even this specialist search will produce definitive proof, as modern Ordnance Survey maps used by the National Archives do not always tally with old tithe maps used by some churches to determine previous ownership of land.

If there is uncertainty over whether a property carries chancel repair responsibilities, estate agents recommend that buyers get one-off insurance cover that takes into account the size of the house, its historic link with the nearby church and the condition of the church.
A Church of England spokesman says the Lords decision has not been interpreted as a green light for churches to reassess repair bills and present them to lay rectors.

That is little consolation to the Wallbanks. Glebe Farm is now let to a tenant farmer and the couple have moved to a farm at Carno, in Powys. They want to meet the parochial church council to discuss how the bill can be paid.

"It's daunting," says Andrew. "The only way we could pay anything like that sum is by selling the house and land at Aston Cantlow. But of course that's impossible. No buyer in their right mind would touch it."

The Times