Liability of a land owner to pay for chancel repairs
This is a quirk of English law which renders approximately 300,000 homes in England and Wales liable to pay or contribute to the Church for the cost of repairing the chancel of a church.
A brief history
In days of yore about 4m acres of England and Wales was owned by parish churches. Parishioners paid contribution called “tithes” to the Rector or Vicar in return for using land owned by the parish. Usually “great tithes” were paid to the rector who applied some of that income to fulfil one of his responsibilities, being the maintenance of the Chancel of his Church.
In 1536 Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries which released land – including rectorial land – into private hands. With that land came the liabilities attached to it which could include the responsibility for upkeep of a local Chancel. The new owners of such land were called Lay Rectors.
So only a church which existed before 1536 can enjoy rights to charge for repairs over parishioners who now own former rectorial lands.
Meaning and extent of the chancel
The chancel (formerly known as the presbytery) is the space around the altar in the sanctuary at the liturgical east end of the church, usually in Anglican and Methodist churches including the choir. Its purposes was to ensure that the blessed sacrament was kept protected from access by the congregation. Its construction and maintenance were the responsibility of the Rector, whereas the construction and upkeep of the congregational areas was the responsibility of the parish. Access to the chancel was formerly limited to the clergy.
Location of chancel land
Former rectorial land (with liability for chancel repair) does not have to be close to a church. There is no limit on the distance of the land from its church, which may run to several miles.
What land is affected
It is the land which is subject to the liability to pay for the chancel. It could be a field or fields which perhaps were later developed. Or it may be one large house.
Sharing the cost
Each owner of land which is affected by the liability must pay their share of the repair of the repair of the chancel and it will need to be apportioned amongst them if there are several owners. Unfortunately the liability could (in theory) be imposed on any one of those owners who would then be left with the unpleasant job of recovering the cost from others.
Will it show up on a title.
Yes, if it has been registered by the Church. No, if it has not been registered by the Church.
Who is going round registering this liability
The responsibility falls on the Trustees of Parochial Church Councils. This explains who they are:
The Charity Commissioners have issued this guidance for those Trustees.
Will chancel liability bind an owner if not registered
No, not if the owner purchased the property for value after 13th October 2013 and no mention of it was on the title before then.
But yes, unless there was not purchase of the property for value after 13th October 2013. So, if the property has a historic liability to pay for a chancel, then the Church could seek payment from a continuing (pre-13th October 2013) owner at any time in the future and seek to register that liability on his title.
Can one investigate the records?
Not really. Some records are available here.
Any telltale signs?
You might think that a reference to Glebe, Vicarage, Parsonage or similar would be a giveaway. Actually that is not so because a property is less likely to have a liability with Glebe is less likely to be affected (although in a recent case the name included that word). In any case the liability would have had to exist before 1536 for it to subsist today so former church names do not necessarily assist in identifying it.
Can chancel liability be removed?
At the discretion of the Parochial Church Council and with the approval of its Diocesan Dilapidations Board it may be possible to remove the liability under the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure 1923. Payment of a premium will be required and this may be considerable.
Human rights of land owners
In a recent case (which went all the way to ) the Court rejected the argument that the liability
was “an unfair and arbitrary tax” as the Parochial Church Council is not a public body but a charity, and church repairs were a considered to be private matter.
Is my home liable – a screening test
It is possible to carry out a screening test for about £20+VAT to ascertain whether a property is located within a parish or former parish in which there are properties which are liable to pay for the repair of a chancel. If the property is not in such a parish then – unless there were land sales by the Church itself which might disguise the issue – it is highly unlikely to afflict the property.
If such a search reveals that the property is in an affected property then indemnity insurance (see below) may be considered.
Is my home liable – a full search
Search agents will provide a full search against liability for chancel repair. The cost is typically about £150+VAT. There are three issues here:
1. If the result is that the property is indeed stuck with liability to pay for chancel repair then on any dealing, a Conveyancer is obliged to notify this to the Land Registry which will then note the liability on the title to the property. In other words, you will have done the research for the Church and owned up. (Some doubt is expressed as to that view in here)
2. It would be difficult if not impossible to obtain indemnity insurance (see below) at that stage.
3. The results would be based upon old maps and records and may not be clear and equivocal. An uncertain result would be unhelpful and confusing.
If a property may have liability for chancel repair which is not mentioned on the title and there has never been contact with or demand from the Church, then it is an easy matter to purchase indemnity insurance against the liability, should it ever arise. The once-only premium is not particularly expensive. The cost will depend upon factors such as:
- whether there are any references to ecclesiastical matters in the title;
- the amount of cover;
- the duration of cover.
Racing the Church when buying a property
As explained, a buyer of a property after 13th October 2013 takes free of any liability for chancel repair. All well and good? Well no, because Conveyancers worry what would happen if the Church sought to register that liability after a contract were concluded between the buyer and a seller but before completion of the sale and purchase. The rules on the priority of registrations at the Land Registry are complex and how it would deal with such matters in all its permutations has not been published. It may therefore be necessary for a buyer to bear the cost of an indemnity insurance policy simply to cover the risk arising between exchange of contracts and completion of the sale and purchase.
The freeholder is responsible for any chancel liability but this may be passed down to the leaseholders under the service charge provisions of the leases.
Isn’t this outrageous?
Yes. Various attempts are made to change the law, a recent one being.
Political will, rather than legal cunning, is required to change the law.