What is chancel repair liability?
Rules going back to medieval times allow a church to demand payment from owners of former rectorial land for the upkeep and repair of the church chancel. For those whose knowledge of ecclesiastical architecture is a little sketchy, the chancel is the area around the altar.
Who is affected?
Chancel repair liabilities are often not mentioned in the title deeds, and can therefore take some new owners completely by surprise. The liability is more common than most people probably think. Approximately 40% of all land in England and Wales is at risk to some degree.
How did the liability arise?
In medieval times every parish had its own priest, called a rector. He was entitled to income from church land but some of that money had to be spent on maintaining the church chancel. As the church has sold its land over the years the obligation to pay has attached itself to the land rather than the rector personally, leaving many homeowners unaware that they are responsible for funding repairs to their local church.
The liability ranges from a few pounds to thousands. Andrew and Gail Wallbank, for instance, inherited a 176 acre Warwickshire farm unaware that they had a liability to pay for repairs to their local church until they received a bill from the Parochial Church Council. They took their case to the House of Lords but lost and have been left facing an enormous bill for both repairs to an ancient church and legal costs.
How can I protect myself against this liability?
You can ask your solicitor about the possibility of insuring your property against the risk of chancel repair liability. The price of the policy depends on the value of your property, and is usually a one-off premium starting at around £60, which will cover you and your mortgage lender for at least 25 years. If you are buying or remortgaging a property at risk, your lender will often insist on this.
Alternatively, you can make enquiries with the parochial authorities direct. But be careful; this could prevent you from getting insurance.
It seems unfair that a homeowner should be liable to the church without any warning
By October 2013 it will be compulsory for a church to record its interest in your property with the Land Registry. If it fails to do so then your property should no longer be at risk.