Abolish Chancel Repair Liability

Thousands of homeowners around the country have been notified by the Land Registry that they are liable to pay for repairs to their local Church of England church.

Chancel Repair Liability (CRL), dates back to the time of Henry VIII and gives some churches the right to demand from some local property owners financial contributions towards repairs to its chancel.

The liability is due whether or not the landowners are Anglicans, or even Christians.

The Church is able to demand, in some cases, payment for the full cost of repairs. For such ancient churches, this can be very substantial indeed, sometimes running into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The liability continues even after the property is sold.

Few potential buyers will contemplate taking on the burden of a property with CRL. Consequently, the value of most properties subject to CRL will be blighted and, in some cases, they may even become unsellable.

Some homeowners have been understandably traumatised when they discovered that their biggest asset had become significantly devalued.

Abolition recommendations go unheeded
As long ago as 1985, the Law Commission described the impact of CRL as "wholly capricious", and considered "that this relic of the past is … no longer acceptable".

Its report concluded: "It is hard today to see any justification for this imposition".

Both the Law Commission and, more recently, the Law Society, have therefore recommended that the only equitable solution is for CRL to be phased out.

Even the Church of England's own parliament, the General Synod, overwhelmingly supported this in 1982.

Despite all this, abolition has not taken place.

This is because the Church has changed its mind and is not now willing to forgo any revenue to repair its many ancient churches, regardless of the hardship and distress caused to many.

The Government is not prepared to phase out CRL, nor is it prepared to take on the burden itself, even if this was defrayed through increased taxes on land transfers – something recommended by the Law Society.

The last ten years
The issue of Chancel Repair Liability first hit the headlines in 2003 when Andrew and Gail Wallbank received a demand for almost £100,000 to fund repairs of their local medieval church at Aston Cantlow, a village in Warwickshire.

After a protracted legal battle, which was taken right to the House of Lords, the Wallbanks lost their appeal against the demand and faced a £350,000 bill including legal costs. They were forced to sell their whole farm to pay for it.

Until this case, this legal anachronism had largely been forgotten and had been little exercised for centuries and many purchasers of land were simply not aware of it.

CRL was not generally mentioned in deeds, but this, originally an ecclesiastical liability, can still be enforced, despite that.

Following the Wallbanks' case, the Government introduced a registration procedure enabling CRL to be shown on Land Registry documents.

Those buying a property after 12 October 2013 against which no CRL has been registered are theoretically not liable to CRL.

The extent of the problem
According to the Land Registry, property in around 5,300 parishes in England and Wales is subject to CRL. Not all affected property is close to the church.

Registration notices have been served on around 12,000 properties but many of those receiving them may not yet realise just how damaging they are likely to be to their property.

Only around 250 parishes have registered CRL. Another 5,000 parishes that are eligible to do so, did not register. In some cases this was for practical reasons, in others it appears to have been out of concern about the adverse impact of registration on those registered and the effect this would have on the church's reputation in their local community.

Further properties are potentially subject to CRL, despite being not being registered for CRL and therefore not having had any notification from the Land Registry. They are less likely to face a charge for CRL.

The liability of land registered with CRL continues with new owners, but where not registered for CRL it ceases with a sale, which may not be for many generations as transfers by inheritance, for example, do not bring the liability to an end.

Solutions, temporary and permanent
Since the Wallbank case, vendors have taken out insurance against purchasers' future liability. It has been relatively inexpensive but such cheap insurance is not available for properties that have been registered.

A statutory mechanism exists for CRL to be commuted or "compounded" by payment of a, probably substantial, amount to the diocese, but there are no known examples of this occurring and we are investigating the practicalities of such an exit route.

The National Secular Society has been working with parliamentarians, and at the top levels of the Ministry of Justice and the Church, to find solutions to the unfairness of CRL, that is causing so much distress. We want to see CRL abolished at the earliest moment.

We hope that you will help us in our efforts to abolish CRL by providing information about your own experiences so that the case we make will be as strong and accurate as possible.

Although we value the great contribution to our heritage that ancient churches make, it is completely unfair that money for repairing them can be demanded simply on the grounds of what the Law Commission describes as "anomalous, uncertain and obscure" law.

That's why it's time this ancient law was consigned to the annals of history where it belongs and a fairer way is found to preserve our common heritage.