Chancel repair liability insurance

Chancel repair liability can impact you significantly if you're buying, inheriting or moving into an affected property, but it's something that can be insured against.

If a property is registered as liable for chancel repairs - or could be put on the register - then you may be advised to take out insurance cover against future bills for the upkeep of the parish church

Think of Henry VIII and you probably conjure images of lavish banquets, ermine-trimmed gowns, or maybe his six unfortunate wives.

The chances are you don't think of a bill landing on your doormat claiming you owe thousands of pounds to the local church.

But thanks to Henry - and his decision in the 16th century to take land from the monasteries to give to new owners - a little-known 500-year-old law enables churches to send demands for payment to homeowners within the parish.

The liability is known as chancel repair liability, the chancel being the area around the church altar, which could include its walls and windows as well as the interior.

Who's liable for chancel repairs?

It doesn't matter whether you take weekly tea with the vicar, or have never been inside your parish church, or even if you're a committed atheist, you could still be liable for chancel repair liability.Thatched cottage

For this reason, if you're considering owning a property within the boundaries of a parochial church council, you should talk to your conveyancing solicitor about the need for chancel repair liability insurance.

Andrew and Gail Wallbank, a couple from Warwickshire who inherited a farm building in 2003, didn't have insurance and ended up having to sell their home to pay fees from an unsuccessful legal fight that cost £400,000.

That was on top on an original chancel repair liability bill from their local church of £100,000.

Checks for chancel liability

If you're inheriting or buying a property that could potentially be liable, then your solicitor will do a search - looking at documents and deeds that relate to the land and the building.

Churches that have registered their intention to claim this liability are now realising the damaging public relations fall-out may outweigh the small financial gain that may accrue
Paul Hajek, solicitor

If the property is registered as liable for chancel repairs - or could be put on the register - then you may be advised to take out insurance cover against future bills for the upkeep of the parish church.

Chancel repair liability insurance

Sam Cherry is director of Conveyancing Liability Solutions Limited (CLS), a specialist company that offers both searches and insurance cover for chancel liability.

"Conveyancers are charged with doing all the usual and necessary searches," said Cherry.

"They establish whether or not there are issues and then they use the law or title insurance to resolve those problems.

"CLS has a product called Chancel Check which is a search. It establishes whether there's a risk or not. Generally, people then pay insurance if it's found there's the potential for the search to register them.

"It means that if they are registered and called upon to make a contribution, it becomes a matter for the insurance company."House

When this article was first written in September 2014, the cost of chancel repair liability insurance was typically around £30. It should be a one-off fee.

The relatively small amount is a reflection of the fact that the chances of ever being called upon to make a contribution to your church's maintenance bills are small.

Instances of chancel liability decreasing

According to Paul Hajek - a solicitor with Clutton Cox who has written extensively on chancel repair liability and advised affected clients - the dangers are lessening as churches become less inclined to chase people for money.

It's about whether or not the parochial church councils in your area have decided to register properties or not, which they are still doing
Sam Cherry, Conveyancing Liability Solutions

"Mostly, the effect of this liability is wearing off," said Hajek.

"I think the churches that have registered their intention to claim this liability are now realising the damaging public relations fall-out may outweigh the small financial gain that may accrue.

"So, the effect is beginning to wane. But when someone is buying a house and we do a chancel repair liability search, if something comes up, then for the sake of £20 to £30 [insurance is] the quickest way forward.

"We're only talking about medieval churches and around 5,000 parishes around the country.

"So, it's a very narrow area. But I think the chancel repair liability insurance industry will carry on for a little while yet."

In October 2013, it was thought that chancel repair liability would no longer be an issue for people trying to move into houses within church boundaries - or for existing owners who did not know they could end up being registered.

Did you know...?

  • As of September 2014, St Cuthbert's in Lytham St Annes has registered a total of 6,108 properties within its parish for chancel repair liability - thought to be a UK record

That was because the government imposed a deadline for churches to register liable properties with the Land Registry.

But the legislation failed to clarify matters. Existing homeowners can still be registered as the only way a property stops being available to register is when it's sold on.

Inheriting a property from a relative or friend doesn't preclude being registered, either. It has to be a sale of a property that wasn't registered before October 2013.

"The liability doesn't diminish with time," said Cherry. "It's not something that gets less likely the longer you've lived in your property.

"It's about whether or not the parochial church councils in your area have decided to register properties or not, which they are still doing."

Some churches are more assertive than others. As of September 2014, St Cuthbert's in Lytham St Annes has registered a total of 6,108 properties within its parish for chancel repair liability - thought to be a UK record.

Chancel repair liability and businesses

Those with businesses on land liable for charges from churches appear to have been far less affected, though.Wallet

"I haven't heard of businesses being affected," said Hajek. "Perhaps that's because many businesses rent or lease properties and it's not the leaseholder who would be liable but the owner of the property."

But for those moving into houses to live - perhaps thinking an idyllic village scene within the sound of church bells is their heart's desire - then it's better to be safe than sorry.

"Most of the people who have a notice drop on their doormat, who knew nothing about the liabilities, I would say around 90% of them have those demands withdrawn," said Hajek.

"But their lives were rather put on hold - and the prospect of selling their home during that time was remote because of the liability."

By Graham Thomas