Ancient church law still causing headaches for homeowners

Thu 24 Oct 2013 by Lorraine Imhoff

Written by Lorraine Imhoff

Many homeowners are finding that they are subject to an ancient liability to contribute to the cost of repairing their local church. Local newspapers and radio stations from across the country are reporting stories of people who have received notices saying that their homes are subject to chancel repair liability – something that they knew nothing about when they bought the property.

Some reports have mentioned that things will change on October 13th – either that if churches do not register their rights by that date they won’t be able to make any claim, or even that the whole business is being abolished. But these views are mistaken.

So what is chancel repair liability and why is it suddenly hitting the news headlines? 

Basically chancel repair liability (or CRL for short) is a legal liability which affects some properties. The owners of such properties can be required to pay all or part of the cost of repairing the chancel* of the local parish church (either Church of England or Church in Wales but not one belonging to any other church or religion.) 

This liability dates back to medieval times – the law relating to this is complicated and has been described as one of the more arcane and unsatisfactory areas of property law. 

Back in the day when Henry VIII was busy getting rid of the monasteries (not to mention various wives) large areas of land formerly owned by religious institutions was acquired by private individuals. 

Often this land was subject to CRL and the new owners were expected to pay for church repairs out of the rents or profits they made from the land.

Over the course of time this land would have been subdivided but each piece sold remains subject to CRL. However this potential liability was often not recorded in a property’s title deeds so buyers would not know if a property was affected.

Chancel repair liability is no longer a legal curiosity

By the end of the twentieth century CRL was regarded as little more than a curiosity which many property lawyers either knew nothing about or assumed had been abolished in the 1930s along with the other church tax known as tithes.

However a major case in 2003 changed all that, when the courts decided that owners of a house at Aston Cantlow in Warwickshire were liable to pay for repairing the historic local church. The repair bill was originally just over £95,000 but as the owners also had to pay the costs of the case the final bill was very considerably more.

Solicitors acting for property buyers then realised that clients faced a ‘conveyancing trap’ – there was no easy way of finding out whether or not a property was affected. It was rare to find any mention of CRL in property titles. But that did not mean that a property was not liable. 

Even if no demands for payments had been made for years a church could still legally require a buyer to pay when repair work needed doing. 

How the Aston Cantlow case forced a change in the law

In response to the public outcry against the Aston Cantlow case the government reviewed the law. Despite the fact that an earlier report had found that CRL was a ‘relic of the past' which was 'no longer acceptable' it was decided that rather than abolishing CRL altogether (which would have required substantial compensation to be paid) they would merely require churches to register notices against affected properties. 

Consequently local church councils had to check whether any properties in their parish were subject to CRL and if so whether to register notices. 

Why 13th October 2013 is an important date

If no notice of liability has been registered against a property before the 13th October 2013 any buyer of that property will take free from liability. So in recent months many owners have been receiving notices form the land registry telling them that the church has applied for registration of such a notice.

This has naturally worried such owners, most of whom had no idea that they could be forced to pay for repairs to the church. Owners who receive such a notice should consult their solicitor, especially if they have bought the property in the last ten years.

Since 2003 solicitors have usually recommended buyers to have a Chancel Repair search carried out. Such searches cost a few pounds, but they have not been able to give a categorical answer. Instead the search company will have checked whether the property was in the parish of a church which had been in existence since before the reformation of Henry VIII.

If a search showed a potential liability solicitors would advise buyers to get indemnity insurance cover against future demands. Sometimes sellers could be persuaded to pay the premium for such insurance. So anyone who has bought a home within the last ten years is likely to find themselves covered against claims even if they receive a notice. 

Chancel repair liability can still affect even if not registered

If you already own a home and have not received any notice by 13th October can you assume that you are off the hook? Unfortunately not – even if the liability has not been registered by then it is still enforceable after that date against owners of affected land until they dispose of it. Only a buyer will take the land freed from the liability if no notice has been registered by the time of the sale.

Many local church councils have taken the view that they should register because they are trustees and could face legal action if they failed to preserve potential assets. On the other hand many others have come to the conclusion that registering will annoy or worry homeowners who receive such notices, and so have not taken any action.

Receiving a notice to say that your home is subject to CRL does not mean that you will necessarily be receiving large bills. Churches can only issue demands to cover the cost of actual repairs to the chancel of the church, they cannot demand regular payments towards general upkeep costs. 

And it is still up to the discretion of the parish church council whether to try and collect money in this way – many will probably prefer to choose other methods of fund-raising instead. But if your home is affected and you do receive a bill you may have no option but to pay unless you do have the benefit of indemnity insurance.

You can’t get out of paying on the grounds that you don’t belong to the church or that you are an atheist or a member of another religion – the liability is a charge against your property, not against you personally. 

*The chancel of a church is normally the part at the eastern end where the clergy and choir traditionally sit – the part where the congregation sit is called the nave.  


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