Chancel repair liability; A curse for property owners!

August 26, 2010

What is chancel repair liability?
Chancel repair liability is a liability on some property owners in England and Wales to fund repairs to the chancel of their local church. Chancel land accounts for approximately 40% of all land in England and Wales.

Why does it exist?
Chancel repair liability dates back to medieval times when every parish had its own rector. The cost of repairs to the church was split between the rector and the parishioners, with the rector being responsible for repairs to the chancel, the eastern end of a church reserved for the clergy and the choir, but he had the benefit of tithes from the land within his parish in order to pay for them. The parishioners were responsible for the western end of a church, the area where they sat.

Many monasteries acquired rectorships and as a result became liable for chancel repairs.When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the church land was sold off and bought by laymen with the liability for chancel repair being transferred with the land.

Does it affect your property?
The liability for these repairs has continued to exist (under Section 2 of the Chancel Repairs Act 1932) and church councils have the power to serve notices to repair on those affected, and may issue proceedings to recover the cost of repair, if a notice is not complied with. It makes no difference whether the property is residential or commercial and the land does not need to be near a church to be affected. Further, properties in urban areas are as much at risk as properties in country villages.

What happened in the Wallbank case?
The high profile court case of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote v Wallbank in 2007 highlighted the unfairness of this draconian law. In brief, the Wallbanks spent nine years disputing their liability to pay for the cost of repairs to their local church. They lost their case and were left with a repair bill of approximately £200,000 and legal fees of around £250,000.

Will this archaic law be abolished?
The Law Society's campaign to seek abolition of chancel repair liability was rejected by the Government. However, the good news is that through provisions made under the Land Registration Act 2002, there will be some changes from 13 October 2013. From this date, chancel repair liability will only bind buyers of those properties where the church has registered it's interest at the Land Registry. This means that if liability has not been registered against the property and the property is sold, new buyers would not be liable. This puts the onus on to the church to identify all affected land and register their interest before that date. On the downside, the risk is the Church of England will be investigating land that is subject to a chancel repair liability before the 2013 deadline.

How can you limit your liability?
Chancel repair searches are a relatively new phenomenon but since the Wallbank case it is now routine to undertake a chancel repair search to identify whether there is a potential liability, as it is impossible to tell which properties are affected. If a chancel repair search reveals a chancel repair liability then it is possible is to take out insurance which is relatively inexpensive and could save unexpected and substantial costs if there is a liability.


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