Government should help church out of unholy hole

A couple in Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire, have been forced to sell their farm to pay off a quarter of a million in legal bills and a £230,000 repair bill for a property not even theirs. Link to story. Anyone who has bought a house recently will have received a cryptic warning from their lawyers that they might be liable for church repairs — but that there is no register of all the liabilities, and so no way of knowing whether you are or not. What’s more, the previous owners may well not know either, since they will only have found out if they have been landed with a similar bill at some point.

Richard Dawkins’s followers will no doubt be quick to claim this is another example of the heinous effect of ‘the God delusion’. But they would be wrong. Under charity law, the Church of England has to diligently pursue all of its debtors, and, coupled with the laws on ‘chancel repair liability’ which date back to Valor Ecclesiasticus in 1535, they have no choice.

At the same time, there can’t be anyone in the entire world who believes it’s right for Andrew and Gail Wallbank to be forced to sell their house to pay for repairs to a public building. And they are not the only ones. There is a long list of people who have been stung this way over the years, and the list is going to get longer by 2013.

For more information, see Chancel.Org.UK, which explains how a change in the law will mean that the Church of England has until 2013 to register its interest in properties with Chancel liability. To see the campaign site of the Wallbanks, look here. The official line is available here.

What lunatic changed the law in that way?

(You know the answer to this one, but, in case you don’t, the legislation is the Land Registration Act 2002.)

Since the Church of England is powerless to extricate itself from a situation which bankrupts ordinary people and brings the church, and thus the entire Christian faith, into disrepute, the government ought to have intervened to simply cancel chancel liability. This would free the Church of England to pursue grants and even Lottery money. This is in fact what the Law Commission and the Church of England Synod recommended in the 1980s.

Parliament long ago abolished tithing laws. Blasphemy laws have largely been set aside. But the Chancel Repair Act itself was updated as recently as 1932.

In 2008, the Prime Minister responded to a petition against it as follows:
“Chancel Repair Liability has existed for several centuries and the Government has no plans to abolish it or to introduce a scheme for its redemption. The Government has, however, acted to make the existence of the liability much simpler to discover. From October 2013, chancel repair liability will only bind buyers of registered land if it is referred to on the land register. By that time, virtually all freehold land in England and Wales will be registered. The Government believes that this approach strikes a fair balance between the landowners subject to the liability and its owners who are, in England, generally Parochial Church Councils and, in Wales, the Representative Body of the Church in Wales.
“The Government acknowledges that the existence of a liability for chancel repair will, like any other legal obligation, affect the value of the property in question, but in many cases this effect can be mitigated by relatively inexpensive insurance. It is for the parties involved in a transaction to decide whether or not to take out insurance.”

As far as the Wallbanks are concerned, whatever action is taken is now almost certainly too late.

Parliamentary Questions should have been asked. But it seems that they were not.

We are therefore left with the entirely unsatisfactory statement made by Mr David Lammy, Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, in 2002: “The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): On 14 September 2003 a Transitional Provisions Order relating to the status of chancel repair liability was made under the Land Registration Act 2002. The making of the order follows the reversal by the House of Lords in June 2003 of the Court of Appeal’s decision in Wallbank v Parochial Church Council of the Parish of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley, Warwickshire. The order provides that, for a period of 10 years from the coming into force of the Act on 13 October 2003, chancel repair liability will remain an interest that binds successive owners of land even though it is not protected by an entry in a register kept by the Land Registry. As no land registration fee is payable for applications to protect similar ancient property rights, such as payments in lieu of tithe, Crown rents and manorial rights, the Land Registry intends to waive the fee for applications to protect chancel repair liability for the 10 year period.

This is pure madness. The government ought to have abolished chancel repair liability outright and filled the short-fall from the public purse — remember, that, at the time, the public purse was overflowing, long before we bailed out the banks and put the nation into debt.

The government can still act. In its dying days, it can set aside a historic injustice: rather like the rhetoric Gordon Brown used in his speech today to drum up a faint pulse among the faithful. While it is certain that Labour can move no major new legislation between now and its forthcoming electoral defeat, it should be able to sort out this mess. Nobody will oppose it, nobody will try to talk it out in committee.

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