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Chancel repair liability: defying the bill of God

publication date: Nov 9, 2009
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Stephen WhittakerThe little-known ancient law surrounding chancel repair still plagues homeowners, buyers, sellers, insurers and conveyancers – remaining an issue that is easily addressed but often overlooked. Chancel repair liability (CRL) dates back to medieval times when churches were maintained by wealthy landlords who owned the estates on which the churches were built. Since then, the estates have been broken down into privately owned properties, yet the potential for CRL is still passed down to existing owners.

Come October 2013, this archaic law will have changed and unless the church has registered a specific interest in a property, it will not be at risk as far as purchasers are concerned. This has led to speculation that church councils will spend the next four years investigating potential liabilities for properties in their parishes. That a Warwickshire couple were held liable to foot the bill for church repairs demonstrates that the issue of chancel repair attaching to ownership of former rectorial land remains very much alive. In this case, the House of Lords held that a Mr and Mrs Wallbank were obliged to pay more than £185,000 as part of the previously unknown liability to contribute to the costs of repairing their local parish church and pay the court costs.

What is a chancel?

CRL is an ancient interest benefiting around 5200 pre-Reformation churches in England and Wales. The chancel is found in the east end of the church and usually contains the choir and altar. It is where the parish priest officiated and the area of the church for which he was responsible. His parishioners were responsible for the nave where the laity sat. The priest or rector met the cost of his repair obligations from the tithes he received as the owner of rectorial land attached to, but not necessarily close to, the church.

By the 16th Century the monasteries had acquired most rectorships together with their attendant property and liabilities so when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries the land to which was attached to the obligation to repair the chancels reverted to the Crown. The land was then dispersed together with the liability. If the property was sold to more than one person then the liability was divided amongst them. The liability is not unlimited. It extends to ensuring the chancel is kept wind and watertight and that essential features are maintained, but it can prove costly. There is no central register of CRL properties. Specialist companies can search modern addresses against ancient parish boundaries and specific liability can be identified by enquiries at the National Archive at Kew.


ChancelChange is Coming

The position will change. The Land Registration Act 2002 came into force in October 2003. Under a Transitional Provisions Order the status for chancel repair liability within the current land registration framework is preserved until October 2013. After that 10-year period the liability will only bind new owners of registered land if it is protected by an entry on the register. The position in relation to unregistered land will remain unaltered because registration is not possible. As the clock ticks down to October 2013 it is conceivable that the trustees of Parochial Church Councils, in discharge of their trustee obligations, will seek to identify the land which is the subject of the obligation in order to register the appropriate entries. Thereby it would ensure that the relevant land owner remains liable to pay for chancel repair.


Not just rural rectories

The type of property gives no clue as to the liability. Investors might be believe that such a medieval tax would not impact upon their modern property but liability can be found in urban areas and in relation to new properties since it attaches to the former rectorial land and not the structures placed upon it. If potential liability is established it is possible to obtain relatively cheap insurance. Specialist insurers can provide insurance for fixed periods or in perpetuity for a single premium. The professional estate agent should advise property buyers to ensure that the conveyancer commissions a search to establish potential liability and if potential liability is established should consider insuring the risk if appropriate. As is so often the case, it really is a case of caveat emptor; buyer beware.



Stephen Whittaker is a Partner at law firm Weightmans. You can contact him at Stephen.whittaker@weightmans.com






Aston Cantlow v Wallbank Case (2003)

This report orginally appeared in The Times. After a long legal battle, Andrew and Gail Wallbank were hit with a bill for £500,000 as a result of a chancel repair claim. The couple inherited a plot in Warwickshire on former rectorial land. In 1990 they received a demand for £6,000 to repair the windows of a church in Aston Cantlow, close to their plot. They contested the demand and a 17-year battle ensued, which the Wallbanks lost. They were ordered to pay for the repairs (the bill had grown considerably), as well as the legal costs for both sides totalling just under £500,000. There are about 3 million acres of former rectorial land in England and Wales, and at-risk areas include Fulham in southwest London, Brighton, Manchester and Lancaster. If a property for sale is close to a church it is prudent to use a service called Chancel Check which does what it says in its name and gives the results within 24 hours. If a risk is identified the client can take out indemnity insurance, or have a full search done to reveal whether the area is at risk and whether that risk relates specifically to the property. If there is a liability, insurance is relatively cheap.

Chancel Check can be found at www.clsl.co.uk