Chancel repair liability: The ancient law that could hit house prices

By Andrew Glover
BBC News

image captionHomeowners living in parishes with churches built before 1536 could be liable for a repair bill

An ancient law which can force homeowners to pay for their local church's repairs is blighting properties and depressing house sales, say campaigners. But what is chancel repair liability and what is the best way to deal with it?

When Elaine Hession opened the letter she almost passed out and her partner Jonathan Hill turned "as white as a ghost".

Last month the couple received a notice from the Land Registry informing them their local church had registered its right to make them contribute to the cost of repairs.

Under chancel repair liability, homeowners living within the parishes of churches built before 1536 can be held liable for costs. The law dates back to the time of Henry VIII and, although actual claims are rare, in 2009 Adrian and Gail Wallbank from Warwickshire sold their home after losing an 18-year legal case and being left with costs of £250,000.

Mr Hill, a builder, said he had spent about £100,000 renovating the home he inherited from his father Frank in Stottesdon, Shropshire, but he now fears it has been devalued because of the registration made by the local parochial church council (PCC).

"It is medieval madness," said the 41-year-old, whose father is buried on the land and "loved the property".

Ms Hession said she could not believe what she was reading when the notice arrived.

"I had a vague notion of chancel repair liability but we were astounded to receive it," she said.

Since the shock of the letter, the couple have set up a Facebook campaign and met with Ludlow Conservative MP Philip Dunne alongside dozens of others in the same situation.

"When we all walked in he was gobsmacked," Ms Hession, 38, said. "He said it was one of the biggest turnouts he's ever had at his advice surgery."

Liability for chancel repair does not necessarily show on the title deeds of a house and solicitors often advise people to take out insurance against potential liability claims with premiums costing from about £50.

But solicitor Paul Hajek said applications for policies in respect of properties where a liability had already been confirmed could cost thousands of pounds or even be declined altogether.

"It is that uncertainty that may put buyers off," he said. "At the very least, it would probably reduce the market value of the property."

PCCs had until October 2013 to register the liability with the Land Registry, but it can still be enforced in some circumstances where registration has not yet taken place.

image captionThe chancel is the part of the church containing the altar

Mr Hajek said properties could be registered as liable after this date if the house had not yet been sold to another owner. Those properties where an interest has already been registered will remain liable if they are later sold, though.

The only way to remove a liability currently is to either prove it is incorrect or persuade the PCC to withdraw it.

But the National Secular Society is campaigning for the liability to be abolished.

"The church has registered properties, even when, as they sometimes claim, they have no intention of calling on property owners to contribute," said executive director Keith Porteous Wood.

"This is tantamount to financial vandalism, the property value is compromised without the church receiving any benefit. The only sure way currently to lift the liability blighting properties is coming to a financial agreement with the diocese.

"In the short term we want to encourage the church to do far more to facilitate sensible deals and MPs to help their constituents with the negotiations."

The Diocese of Hereford, which covers Stottesdon, said the PCC had "followed the correct legal procedures" and was now considering representations from landowners "as a matter of urgency".

The Reverend Greg Yerbury, of St Michael and All Angels' Church in Penkridge, Staffordshire, said the law placed PCCs in a difficult situation.

"It's a very complicated area of the law and no-one really understands it so I can understand why PCCs make mistakes," he said.

He said it was phenomenally difficult for PCCs to navigate the "unfortunate combination" of common law, Acts of Parliament and past court cases, which he said could be traced back to the 10th Century.

PCCs are classed as charities and their members are required to consider all potential liabilities.

"In my opinion registering the liability should be really rare but there will be some circumstances when it probably will be reasonable and the correct thing for a PCC to do," Mr Yerbury said.

"People are going to be understandably immensely upset but a reasonable solution usually comes about eventually. There are probably only two examples of ordinary people having to shell out for the repair of a chancel in the past 100 years."

Another homeowner who spoke to BBC News has signed a confidentiality agreement with his PCC as part of negotiations on withdrawing the notice on his home.

He said he had "lived, breathed and slept" chancel repair liability since being informed by the Land Registry last year.

"It's taken over my life, there's no way I can have this hanging over me and my family. There's no way anyone in their right mind would buy this house. Because the liability is joint and several in this parish the church could send me a bill for the full amount.

"Initially the church wasn't prepared to discuss it at all but they then said if I agreed not to make a fuss they would arrange a meeting to try and resolve it."

image copyrightElaine Hession
image captionFamilies in Stottesdon have vowed to carry on their campaign

Similarly, Ms Hession says she and others in Stottesdon are living under a "dark cloud of worry".

"It's not really the issue of them coming for the money," she said.

"The real issue for us is the total devaluation of our property. No-one will buy our houses if we ever wanted to sell because the mention of chancel repair liability has everybody thinking about the Wallbank case.

"We're 50-50 on which way it will go but one thing's for sure, I'm not going to stop campaigning."

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