In two months time a law reform comes into effect which will give comfort to home and land owners worried by the ogre of Chancel Repair Liability
In two months time a law reform comes into effect which will give comfort to home and land owners worried by the ogre of Chancel Repair Liability, aka CRL – the idea that you might buy a house and, years later, find that, as its owner, you are liable to pay for repairs to the local parish church. It is another nail in the coffin of an ecclesiastical anachronism which is strangely still common in parts of Europe.
Between 1994 and 2003, the long-running case of the Parish of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley v Wallbank caught the public eye – and the public ire. The liability of Mr and Mrs Wallbank to pay for repairs to their local chancel, whilst historically understandable and legally valid, highlighted the 'silent risk' of CRL: this kind of ancient obligation to pay for repairs didn't even need to be registered on the property's title.
The Wallbanks’ plight prompted the passing of the catchily-titled Land Registration Act 2002 (Transitional Provisions) (No2) Order 2003 which provided that, after a ten year twilight period, from 13 October this year, parishes who claim to have CRL rights against local property owners must register their interests rather than letting them float in the ether like a sepulchral ghost from the graveyard of legal history.
This reform will at very least make the imposition of CRL, where it does occur, more predictable. No one would argue that legal rights should be surrendered just because they are unpopular, but such rights should be as transparent as possible.
In reality, CRL is unlikely to be seen by many churches as a useful method of fundraising, and few would want the negative publicity that the Wallbank case attracted. Only in exceptional circumstances will churches seek funds beyond the voluntary donations of actual church members- but they may want to preserve their right to do so in extremis.
Church councils have only weeks ahead of mid October to protect their rights. Property owners can take action too however – for example, by checking that their registered address for service of any notice of new charges is up to date. Insurance can be taken out to cover a risk of this kind, or the property owner could seek to negotiate with the relevant church body to annul the obligation.
Meanwhile we can reflect on the very different situation for church fabric in Germany and much of Scandinavia. In these countries, there was never an end to church taxes quite as abrupt as our Tithe Act 1836 and unless opting out of the system, taxpayers there regularly contribute up to 2 per cent of income not only to chancels but also to belfries, organs, ministerial stipends, hymnbooks, bibles, and to all manner of church projects. Good luck finding this in a future tax programme of HMRC!
Edward Keene, private wealth city wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP