Property Solicitors Suffolk – Freehold properties could be liable for church repairs contributions

Toby Pound

‘Did you know that if you own freehold property in England or Wales you could be liable to pay a contribution to the repair of your local parish church? The majority of clients who instruct us to act for them on property purchases have never heard of chancel repair liability and are usually astonished that, simply by owning a freehold property, they might become liable for a hefty contribution.

In 2003, Mr and Mrs Wallbank, who owned a small farm in Warwickshire, received a bill from their local church requesting a contribution of over £90,000 to help with the repairs of the chancel of St John the Baptist Church, Aston Cantlow. They challenged the church’s right to collect such a huge sum from them and, after a lengthy legal battle which ended in the House of Lords, they lost. Their eventual legal bill was over £350,000.

So what is chancel repair liability? Its roots can be found in pre-Reformation England. Traditionally, churches were ministered either by a vicar who received a stipend (salary) or by a rector who collected tithes from the parishioners. The rectors of around 5,200 churches were liable for repairing the chancel while the parishioners were liable for the rest of the church. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1535, the land owned by the rectors was sold and dispersed but the liability to repair the chancel went with it. Nearly 500 years later, that liability still exists.

Since the Wallbank case, solicitors or conveyancers acting for freehold buyers will invariably make a chancel repair search to establish whether the property is in a parish which is known to have a potential liability. Insurance can then be taken out to indemnify against any future demands.

It is very unlikely that liability will show up on the Land Registry entries for a property, simply because very few churches have been able or willing to establish individual liability or take the steps required to register the liability against freehold properties. The absence of any entry on the Land Register does not necessarily absolve a property from liability because chancel repair liability is treated as an “overriding interest”. In other words, it is still binding on owners of that property even though it does not show on the register.

That will change on 13 October 2013. After that date, if the liability is not actually shown on the Land Registry entries, it will no longer bind future owners of the property, although existing owners will still be potentially liable.

Some churches are taking steps to register against individual properties before the deadline but in many parishes, it is likely that the liability will steadily fall away.’

Toby Pound is a property solicitor at Barker Gotelee, solicitors in Suffolk

Property Solicitors – click here for more information on our range of services