Chancel Repair deadline looms

10 Mar 2011

If you are buying property, your conveyance will more than likely carry out a property search to discover whether your property is affected by an obligation to contribute to the repair of the chancel of the local parish church.

Sounds strange doesn’t it? Yet in 2003 the House of Lords awarded the Church £100,000 against unsuspecting home owners.

The origins of this chancel repair obligation derive from medieval times, when every parish had its own priest or rector. The rectors (of around 5,200 churches) by the nature of their clerical status back then, had a number of rights, including the receipt of certain taxes (tithes) or income from the land of the parish (Glebe Land). The cost of repairs to the church was split between the rector (who had this income to use) and his parishioners, with the parishioners traditionally being responsible for the western end of a church (where they sat) and the rector being responsible for repairs to the chancel (the eastern end of a Church).

Since these times, the land has been broken into many thousands of smaller parcels, yet this medieval repairing liability has continued to exist and as mentioned already, has been enforced or claimed by the Church.

Indeed, chancel land is reported as accounting for approximately 40% of all land in England and Wales. As a result conveyancers are quite naturally on guard to protect their clients.

The biggest problem is that a conclusive search for liability is very difficult, as a property need not have been adjacent to a church, and the liability may not have been recorded.

Still further, the Land Registration Act 1925 makes liability for chancel repair binding on a purchaser, whether they have knowledge of the liability or not.

In an attempt to reduce the unfairness (as opposed to an outright abolition), the law was changed on 13 October 2003 so that the right to enforce a chancel repair liability will only be possible if it is registered as a ‘Notice’ against the property’s registered title at the Land Registry. Failure to register this liability within the following 10 years (i.e by 13 October 2013) means that a buyer purchasing land will take free of it. The Government felt that most land would be registered by then anyway. Certainly a good reason to consider a voluntary first registration of your unregistered deeds.

Early fears that the Church might lodge huge numbers of applications to register ‘Notices’ prior to 13th October 2013 have not materialised. Indeed, the Land Registry are reported to have set various strict criteria for any such ‘Notice’ to be registered, so that documentary evidence must be provided to detail how the liability arose, and how the benefit of the right to enforce has fallen to the applicant.

In addition, a quick Chancel Repair conveyancing search can be carried out to assess, not whether liability does or does not exist, but the likelihood of exposure to the liability.

To protect our clients, we carry out this Chancel Repair search as a matter of course on all house purchases, as this screens every property at parish level in order to determine whether further action is required before our clients decide to proceed with their purchase. The search is quick and costs less than £20. If the search result reveals any potential risk of liability, we then offer our clients the option of a legal indemnity insurance policy, which can be taken out to cover the risk that the property is ever called upon to pay. The premium is a small amount, and is normally paid by the property owner on a purchase, and covers the property for up to 25 years.