Legislation intended to remove homeowner’s worries about chancel repair liability may be having the opposite effect. Faced with the possibility of losing grants from sources such as English Heritage, it seems that churches across the country are now busy checking if local properties are subject to this arcane liability and asking the land registry to register notices against affected homes.
Homeowner’s receiving notices from the land registry are rightly upset and concerned as to what action they should take. If you don’t think this is very important, think again – in the case mentioned below the homeowners received a demand for over £95, 000, which had to be paid in the end. So if you receive such a notice, don’t take it out on your local vicar but contact your Conveyancing Solicitor straight away.
Conveyancing Solicitors had for years found that it was difficult to know if a property was affected by a potential liability to contribute to repair costs for their local church. Nothing needed to be registered at the land registry. The only way to find out for certain would have been to research back through ancient title deeds which had often been lost or destroyed.
As has been discussed elsewhere on this website, such liabilities were generally thought by Conveyancing Solicitors to have become obsolete with the passage of time. But in 2003 the courts confirmed in the Aston Cantlow [*] case that some homeowners could still be forced to contribute to the cost of repairing the local church.
Following an outcry over the courts’ decision, parliament decided to remedy the situation. But rather than just abolish this relic of ancient law outright, it gave churches until 12 October 2013 to register notices against the registered titles of affected properties or otherwise the right would be lost.
According to a report in the Daily Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/propertynews/9438425/Thousands-of-families-could-be-caught-by-church-repair-bills-as-archaic-rights-revived.html the Charity Commission has warned that they if churches fail to act, individual members of Church Councils could be liable for the repairs or even found in breach of their legal duties as trustees. English Heritage has also apparently stated that it would not give repair grants to historic churches if they failed to collect money from homeowners who were liable to contribute.
Up until now it has been assumed thought that many churches would not take any positive action to investigate whether they had any such rights. Even if they did, vicars would be unwilling to provoke hostility from local homeowners by applying for registration. But apparently they are now being forced to take action before the deadline expires next year.
So it looks as if something that many thought would quietly die away except in a very few cases will now become a serious problem for those property owners who find that their homes are saddled with this ancient liability.
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* Parochial Church Council of the Parish of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley, Warwickshire (Appellants) v Wallbank and another (Respondents)  UKHL 37