December 11 2013 Latest news:
Friday, October 18, 2013
An ancient law dating back to the Middle Ages has caused panic and confusion after hundreds of households found out they could be liable for paying for repairs at their parish church.
Almost 900 homes in Gorleston have been sent letters warning them they could have to cough up cash because of Chancel Repair Liability, a legally-binding but little-known obligation to the local church which dates back to the Medieval period.
Essentially, centuries-year-old St Andrew’s Church has rights to certain parcels of land - a hangover from the Middle Ages when churches held huge swathes of land and parishioners paid a ‘tithe’ to the local vicar for living on or working off it.
With the new Land Registry Act 2002 brought in by government to make sure homebuyers know exactly who has rights to their - such as old fishing or sporting access, thousands of people across the UK have discovered that their local church has a legal right to ask them for money.
About 890 homes in Gorleston received letters from local solicitors this week, telling them they could be liable if the Parochial Church Council (PCC) of St Andrew’s ever decided to claim Chancel Repair Liabilities.
The church has moved quickly to reassure neighbours it is “highly unlikely” that would ever happen. But residents are still confused.
Michael and Avril Lilly, who have owned their home in Humberstone Road for more than 15 years, thought the letter was a scam when it landed on their doorstep, but soon began to worry.
“I thought freehold meant we owned the land,” said Mr Lilly, 65.
“It was a shock more than anything. I was worried some of the more elderly residents might immediately pay out without checking. We weren’t being asked for money up front but it makes you think you’re going to be.
Margaret Nevin, of Albion Road, Great Yarmouth, received a letter about Chancel Repair Liability back in March and filed it away, unsure of what it meant.
“It’s scary when you get a letter from a solicitor,” she said.
“I spoke to a lady at work and she said it was in my best interests to pay it but I didn’t know what I was being asked to pay for.”
That letter from Chamberlain’s Solicitors mentioned a case of Aston Cantlow PCC v the Wallbanks who, the House of Lords ruled, were legally obliged to pay £224,000 towards repairs for their parish church in rural Warwickshire.
Describing that case as a “scare story”, the Reverend Steve Bradford of St Andrew’s has moved to reassure residents the church did not know the Land Registry letter was being sent out. And, if they had, would have been quicker to explain to people what it all meant.
Rev Bradford has spoken to dozens of worried homeowners - “most of them understanding, some very distressed and one or two very angry”, he said.
“The most important message is people shouldn’t be expecting a bill from the church.
“A number of people are very distressed and they don’t need to be.
“If the church was in a situation where it had a bill for £20,000 for chancel repairs, it’s highly unlikely we’d write to residents asking for money. That would damage our reputation for pastoral care.
“The present PCC would never do that. I cannot say it would never happen in the future when there is another PCC in 50 years time, but I do not want people to worry.”
The church has written a letter explaining how residents who are liable for Chancel Repair Liability can avoid any future charge if they purchase a ‘certificate of exemption’ for £50. The £50 would go to the PCC and the certificate releases the homeowner from any obligation to fund repairs at St Andrew’s chancery, which includes the altar, communion table and choir stalls.
Chris Taylor, a Chancel Repair Liability expert and associate at Norfolk solicitors firm Hansells, advised homeowners to get to grips with the legalities.
“People should be aware that if their land is affected and a conveyancer carried out a search on the house that showed a potential liability, they can get insurance against the risk. That insurance would be jeopardised, however, if the person affected approached the PCC or their vicar because it potentially informs the church there is a property which they could make a claim against.”
For many people in Gorleston, this confusing Chancel Repair Liability issue has only come to light now because the deadline for PCCs to register their ‘overriding interest’ in land - that is an ancient right to land regardless of whether it is listed in the deeds - with the Land Registry came and went on October 13.
Rev Bradford estimated the change in the law has cost St Andrew’s almost £1,000 in legal advice.
If you have received a letter, contact the solicitor involved for advice.