Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Chancel Repair - It's a Liability

So, how about this for a mission strategy. Everyone who moves into your parish (sorry, it's just for Anglicans), as part of buying a house, is encouraged to insure themselves against the church. Why? Because of an ancient legal provision that the church can bill people on church lands for repairs to its building.

Welcome to the batty world of Chancel Repair Liability, in which possibly thousands of local Anglican churches find their mission to the community compromised, whilst insurers line their pockets with a tidy little premium that they know is rarely, if ever, called upon.

Why not just ignore it? Again, because of the law:

A PCC (church council in a CofE church) is a charity (even if it is not registered with the Charity Commission) so its members are subject to the same general duties as charity trustees, including the duty to exercise their powers in the charity’s best interests. Where a chancel repair liability exists, the right to enforce that liability is an asset of the PCC which must be appropriately managed.

This is from some new guidance by the Charities Commission for church councils. This is coming to a head because of a deadline (October 2013) for all PCCs to establish whether local properties are liable, and to decide whether to 'register' those liabilities, or let them lapse. If we let them lapse, then there is the chance that we fall foul of the law for charities to use their assets for the best. There are also stories of churches being refused grants and other assistance for building repairs (e.g. by English Heritage) because they've not invoked chancel repair liablity.

All of this is missionally disastrous. How did we get to a place where people have to insure themselves against the church? How did we get to a place where churches have to tax local people - believer and atheist alike - to preserve an ancient church building, and where any church that doesn't  do this is acting against the law, or is penalised in grant bids? Here's just one example of what that looks like on the ground.

There's a helpful summary of the new guidance on the Law and Religion blog, which notes:

The Commission does, however, set out a useful framework for trustee decision-making which, in the Commission’s opinion, should help PCC members to act in accordance with their legal duties. Under the Commission’s framework PCC members must:
  • act within their powers, which means:
    • only making decisions which advance, or support activities that advance, their charity’s purpose for the public benefit;
So it all depends on whether, in law, the purpose of the church in mission and 'cure of souls' within a parish trumps the need to pay the bills. Church buildings are a means, not an end, they serve the mission and ministry of the church, and are therefore secondary concerns. Which is all very well for me to say, but what will the courts and grant-making bodies say?

Personally, I'd like to leaflet the whole parish explaining that we have no intention of invoking the liability, and then write to all the local solicitors encouraging them to donate the money they've made out of this to charity. Or the building fund.....

For more background, here's a really helpful page maintained by one local church, with lots of links, stories and resources for churches wanting to know more.

Update: Greg Yerbury, who's put together this help page, is hoping to publish a list of 590 parishes known to have Chancel Repair Liability later this week, so keep an eye on his site if you think it might be you!

Update 2: the lists are up, 4b and 4c in the top rhs of the Chancel Repair page, sorted by county, which is helpful.


  1. A young couple I know are buying their first house - a small one on a small new development - they have struggled financially to get to this point and now they have discovered they will be taking on a chancel repair liability - what a ridiculous situation.

  2. Dear Nancy, you probably mean they are taking out CRL insurance which is quite common. The whole CRL thing is slightly mad but I am not certain there is an easy way out of it.


  3. You're picking the wrong target with the solicitors; they don't pocket the insurance fees (far from it). Insurance companies take the fees - and also pay out in the event of a claim.

    Writing to the local solicitors and asking them to donate the profits from chancel repair insurance is simply asking for some wag to send you a cheque for £0.00, being an accurate representation of the profits made.

    I do actually agree with you that it is ridiculous the C of E is forced by law to uphold a right it would really rather not have. Please don't be offended if I don't ever take insurance advice from you, however!

  4. Thanks Anonymous, that saves me getting a reputation as an idiot with some of our local legal folks! (unless I've got that already, of course...)

  5. I am a conveyancer and we do not 'line our pockets' as we do not earn from the chancel insurance. All money goes to the insurance company! We are in an impossible situation as if we do not tell clients to take out the cover then we can be sued for negligence and most lenders say we must incept the policy! Dont always blame lawyers and get facts right first!

  6. Thankyou for commenting - I'll amend the post accordingly and my apologies for getting it wrong. I understand you're in a difficult legal position, this doesn't seem to be a law which satisfies anybody.

  7. Thank you for this interesting blog. As I have argued on my blog, I think the 2003 land registration order should not have been made and that things would be much better if it had not been. It should now be revoked and it is probably ineffective. PCCs should not feel under any legal obligation to register - and the unreal fears of the consequences of not doing so should not have been stoked up by the Legal Advisory Commission of the CofE. The pastoral reasons for not registering surely outweigh any possible benefit in most cases. The Charity Commission has now recognised that PCCs are entitled to make their own decision, in good faith, so how could anyone criticise them for doing so?

  8. Thank you for your interesting blog. I do not think PCCs should be under any pressure to register CRL as it damages the pastoral mission of the church, as you have pointed out. Parliament did not want CRL to be mentioned in the Land Registration Act 2002, as it accepted the decision of the Court of Appeal in Aston Cantlow about the Human Rights Act. The 2003 registration order should not have been made. it does not impose any legal liability on PCCs to do anything about CRL. Neither in my view does charity law. Please see my blog: http://michaeljameshall.wordpress.com/category/law-reform.

  9. Anonymous-Of course there's a way out of it. Sell Welbys palace so the c of e can pay its own repair bills.