This is a headache which started in 855 AD when King Ethelwulf, the father of King Alfred, granted to the church the right to receive taxes or “tithes”. Some medicine has recently been prescribed but, sad to say, the pain still persists.

In 2003 the unfortunate Andrew and Gail Wallbank lost an action in the House of Lords where they were appealing against an Order to pay the successor of these tithes, now known as Chancel Repair Liability¹. They ended up having to sell their farm to pay the liability.

The reason why King Ethelwulf’s tax still has an effect is because, following Henry VIII’s confiscation of church property, he sold off much of the former church land to private individuals known as Lay Rectors. As regards the parishes which had previously had rectors rather than vicars, the rector had a duty to maintain the chancel of his church and he also had the right to collect “great tithes”, which included a proportion of the crops, hay and wood produced in the parish. The Lay Rectors acquired the liability to maintain the chancels when they bought the land from Henry VIII. As a result, a property owner’s possible exposure to Chancel Repair Liability depends upon whether or not he or she is a Lay Rector by reason of living in a parish which had a rector before 1536. This affects about one-third of the parishes in England.

Over the years certain tithes were converted into annual cash sums, but a dormant liability continued to exist in respect of “rectorial land” so that unwitting land owners could be asked for contributions to the cost of repairs to a church’s chancel even though no demand may have been made for hundreds of years. If the right to make a demand exists, then the body which may now enforce it is the Parochial Church Council of the Parish in question.

Following the Wallbank case the Government introduced legislation² as a result of which, as from midnight on 12 October 2013, any purchaser for value of a property which might previously have been subject to a Chancel Repair Liability will be free of all such liability for the future unless, in the meantime, the Parochial Church Council has entered a notice at the Land Registry affecting the title. There therefore remains the risk that a notice may be entered by the Parochial Church Council at any time up until the first sale of the property for value, and all land owners are advised to take out insurance against the risk of Chancel Repair Liability unless they are certain that they are not within a parish which is affected. The premiums are small: £15.00 provides indefinite cover in respect of residential properties up to a value of £1 million. Our clients should contact a member of our Property department if they would like us to arrange cover.

The Church of England is now in the difficult position of having to raise money where it can while being deeply sympathetic for the unfortunate parishoners – not unlike the sentiments of the Walrus while eating the oysters who had been following him:

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathise.”
With sobs of tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size.³

Properties of any size may be affected by Chancel Repair Liability, but as with the Walrus, the Parochial Church Councils will tend to pick on the larger properties.

In the meantime with the introduction of the Annual Tax on Enveloped Properties and the threatened Mansion Tax, our rulers are reverting to the methods of King Ethelwulf.

¹ Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley Parochial Church Council v Wallbank

[2003] UKHL 37.
² The Land Registration Act 2002 (Transitional Provisions)(No 2) Order 2003 (SI 2003/243)
³ The Walrus and the Carpenter from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Lewis Carroll 1872.