Thursday, 2 December 2010

How the Church can Bankrupt You

A couple of years ago, we moved house. As we were in the process of buying the new house, our solicitor advised us to take out Chancel Repair Liability Insurance. This was the first we had heard of Chancel Repair Liability. The Church of England has a right to impose this liability on anyone owning land that it (the Church) used to own at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (middle of the 16th Century). The liability, which can be imposed by the Parochial Church Council (PCC), on each and every landowner of these "rectorial lands" is to bear the cost of any repairs to the chancel (the bit of the church where the altar is).

It does not matter whether the landowner owns 100 hectares or 1 square metre; he or she can still be made liable, on the whim of the PCC and without any right of appeal, for repairs costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. The Wallbanks case (more about this later) is evidence that the Church of England is willing to exercise this right even if it means bankrupting people or forcing them to sell their homes.

In response to a petition, 10 Downing Street said in March 2008:

    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.

The assertion: "From October 2013, chancel repair liability will only bind buyers of registered land if it is referred to on the land register," is misleading if not downright deceptive. If, after October 2013, the property has not changed hands and the liability is subsequently "discovered", the landowner is still liable for this "blank cheque" charge.

The "relatively inexpensive insurance" that Downing Street says is available, is only available if you don't know if you are liable. If a search shows that your property is on rectorial land, you cannot take out insurance and your property may effectively be unsaleable -- i.e. valueless.

Back to the Wallbanks case. The Wallbanks family was found to be liable by the High Court, but the Appeal Court subsequently found in the family's favour, stating that Chancel Repair Liability is contrary to European Convention on Human Rights and that the PCCs are subject to Human Rights Act, 1998.

The PCC appealed to the House of Lords, which decided that PCCs are not public bodies and are therefore not bound by the Human Rights Act or the Convention on Human Rights. The PCC was funded by the Archbishops' Council, which requested donations of approx. £10,000 from each diocese, to take its case to the House of Lords. The Archbishops are, of course, among the 26 (maximum) "Lords Spiritual" in the House of Lords.

What we have here is a clear case of archaic practices being maintained for the benefit of the established church. The United Kingdom is one of only two modern countries to have reserved seats for clerics in its legislature (the other is Iran). There is no case, either in logic or in natural justice, for this or for the persistence of a law that requires those of us who are not members of a church to pay for the maintenance of its property.

The only just solution is the disestablishment of the Church of England and the repeal of all its privileges, including the public funding of its places of worship and its schools.