The End of Chancel Repair as we know it?

Published: 27 October 2012

The subject of chancel repair is set to become a hot topic of conversation in the property market, because an age old tradition will soon be changing. Justyna Skirska, a Solicitor in our Property Team examines how new rules are going to be implemented in October 2013 which will require compulsory registration of all chancel repair liability if it is to be enforced.  

Chancel repair liability enables approximately 5,200 pre-Reformation Church of England parishes to demand money from owners of particular properties on former monastery land, to fund repairs to their church buildings. These homeowners are called lay rectors, and they are liable for keeping the chancel (the space around the altar at the liturgical east end of the building) wind-proofed and water-tight.

Chancel Repair Liability is a form of "overriding interest" as per the Land Registration Act 1925.   An overriding interest does not need to be registered to have legal effect.  Therefore, this interest does not appear in Land Registry documents or in unregistered title deeds.  As the interest is not discoverable on inspection, a search is needed to confirm whether or not a property is within a parish affected by Chancel Repair Liability. 

If the property was within a parish with continuing liability, a chancel repair risk liability insurance policy is purchased.

Lack of insurance can prove to be a costly affair as was illustrated when Andrew and Gail Wallbank of Glebe Farm, Warwickshire were billed for £100,000-worth of repairs to Aston Cantlow Church. They tried to challenge the bill and went to court. Several years later in 2009, the case ended in failure and a bill of £350,000 (as a result of which they had to sell their farm).  This case caused much publicised outrage, especially when it was realised that it had far wider application.

The potential liability is of course much more worrying for rural home owners – as in the Wallbank case above. Those living in a rural idyll with no other properties around and a view of the village church may find that an enormous chancel repair liability cannot be spread amongst many other dwellings.  To be caught by this liability a property must be within the relevant medieval historic parish boundary.  However, the liability to pay for chancel repairs can also apply in towns and cities (such as Brighton, Manchester, Bedford and Lancaster), especially where ancient settlements now form part of larger urban conurbations. 

From 13 October 2013, the ability to enforce repair liability will no longer be considered an overriding interest which is only discoverable by a search. A buyer purchasing land or property will take free of the liability unless it is protected by registration of a notice on the title.

This is to be welcomed by buyers and their solicitors as liability for chancel repairs will, for the first time, become completely transparent. 

It will however place a considerable burden on the church who will no doubt have to put in a lot of overtime to register the notices on affected land.  In 1983 the Law Commission noted that although there were 5,200 chancels for which a repair liability existed, only 1,200 were the liability of the Church Commissioners. 

At the moment, it is rare to see a notice registered on a property’s legal title, protecting the church’s right to enforce this repair liability, but as October 2013 draws closer, no doubt we will see a rush to register chancel repair notices.

For specific advice and information on chancel repair liability please contact Justyna Skirska, a Solicitor in the Property Team.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.