Chancel Repair Liability could be abolished completely if a parliamentary Bill proposed by Liberal Peer Lord Avebury is passed. This could mean the end of “one of the more arcane and unsatisfactory areas of property law. ”
At present Chancel Repair Liability (or CRL) is causing an endless headache for property buyers and solicitors.
Thousands of property owners across the country have been horrified to receive letters from the Land Registry telling them that a local church has registered a notice saying that their home is subject to an ancient liability to repair or contribute to the cost of repairing the chancel of the local parish church.
Abolishing Chancel Repair Liability would simplify conveyancing
The cost of such repairs can potentially run into hundreds of thousands of pounds so the value of a property which is subject to this liability will be substantially reduced. Abolishing CRL altogether would remove this worrying prospect as well as simplifying property conveyancing.
The problem for buyers and their solicitors is that it has often been extremely difficult to know if a particular home was actually subject to any liability. CRL arose following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541. Few properties have title deeds going back that far.
Another complication was that CRL did not require to be registered against a property title at the Land Registry.
But even if there was no mention of CRL in the title deeds or the registered title that did not mean that there was no liability. CRL is a liability which attaches to a property irrespective of who owns it and whether or not they have any connection with the church.
Buyers' solicitors usually make a chancel search in connection with a property search. But this will only state whether or not the property is in a parish with a church which dates back to medieval times.
The only way to be certain was to make a search of old records held in the National Archives – a time-consuming and expensive job which most buyers weren't prepared to pay for.
New registration requirements have led to thousands becoming aware of CRL
A change in the law which came into effect in October 2013 means that Parochial Church Councils (PCCs) must now register a notice against a property title if they claim that it is subject to CRL. If a purchaser buys a property and no such notice has been registered the PCC would unable to enforce any liability.
PCCs have therefore been investigating whether they now need to register notices at the Land registry. As a result many thousands of homeowners have now been informed that their home is subject to CRL.
All this has brought widespread publicity to this hitherto obscure area of the law. It is therefore hardly surprising that there have been many calls for it to be abolished completely. Most people see it as a relic of medieval church law which has nothing to do with a modern secular society.
Previous Governments have failed to abolish CRL
Up to now governments of various political hues have failed to bring in necessary legislation to abolish CRL. The Law Commission, which reviews the law and recommends changes, called for CRL to be abolished back in 1985 but no action was taken.
Some years ago it was thought that CRL was effectively a dead letter as it was repugnant to the Human Rights Act 1998. But the courts finally decided that this was not the case, and it is still legal.
So provisions were added to the Land Registration Act 2002 which gave churches a ten-year period to apply to register notices against properties liable to CRL.
It would clearly have been much simpler to abolish CRL as had already been done with tithes, another relic of medieval law. But the problem for the government was that to do so without compensating individual church councils would also offend against the Human Rights Act.
A statutory compensation scheme could have been set up but no doubt this would have been complicated and stirred up more debate than the government of the day thought worthwhile.
So it was easier to bury the problem in some obscure statutory provisions which weren't going to come into effect for another ten years so no-one was going to worry about them. But the ten-year period has now elapsed and the problem has not gone away.
It can certainly be argued that under the new law any buyer will now know with certainty whether or not the property being purchased is subject to CRL.
But an existing owner who has received a notice of registration will be in the uncertain position of not knowing when or whether the local church will decide to enforce their rights. Owners whose homes are affected by CRL will now find it much harder to sell their property and will probably have to discount the sale price.
Some owners who are affected by CRL have agreed to pay a lump sum to the parish church in order to have the liability removed. But churches are not obliged to agree such arrangements and in any case many owners are unable to pay a large sum.
Good luck to Lord Avebury and his Bill. But unless the current government is willing to adopt it the chances of its becoming law look very slim. So blighted property owners should not get their hopes up too much and conveyancing solicitors will still continue to have to make chancel searches for the time being.