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 financial contributions towards repairs from local property owners.
The liability is due whether or not the landowners are Anglicans, or even Christians.
In some cases, payment could be for the full cost of repairs, sometimes running into hundreds of thousands of pounds, but normally the cost will be shared with others locally.
Registration notices have been served on the owners of around 12,000 properties but many more properties are subject to CRL despite those properties not been registered.
Some people have been traumatised by the realisation that their property is subject to CRL, but many have not yet realised just how damaging CRL could be.
Few potential buyers will contemplate taking on the burden of a property subject to CRL, particularly where it is registered, so its value will be reduced and, in some cases, may become unsellable.
The Law Commission described the impact of CRL as “wholly capricious”, and described CLR as a "relic of the past". They said it was "hard today to see any justification for this imposition” and concluded that it was "no longer acceptable”.
Both the Law Commission and, more recently, the Law Society have recommended that the only equitable solution is for CRL to be phased out.
Despite this, abolition has not taken place; the Church is not willing to forgo any revenue to repair its many ancient churches, despite the hardship and distress caused to many.
Nor is the Government prepared to phase out CRL.
After a protracted legal battle in 2003, Andrew and Gail Wallbank lost their appeal against a demand for CRL and were forced to sell their Warwickshire farm to pay a £350,000 bill including legal costs.
Until this case, CRL had largely been forgotten for centuries and many purchasers of land were simply not aware of it as it was not generally mentioned in deeds. In the last decade, however, parochial church councils (PCCs) have been able to register CRL claims against properties at the Land Registry.
Insurance can provide a partial solution, but is expensive. It may be possible to buy out the liability from the local diocese, but this is uncharted territory and also likely to be expensive.
Most people will acknowledge the contribution to our heritage that ancient churches make, but it is completely unfair that money for repairing them can be demanded from property owners simply because what the Law Commission describes as “anomalous, uncertain and obscure” law. Arbitrarily destroying the values of people’s principal asset is not the way to preserve our architectural heritage.
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.
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Find out more about the campaign to abolish Chancel Repair Liability