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Thousands of homeowners from across the UK may find themselves at the short end of a very thin wedge thanks to a little known law in which the church can literally force people to pay for their upkeep.

It turns out that a little known chancel repair law dating back to the Middle Ages can allow churches to force anyone living in the local vicinity who has a mortgage, to pay a contribution towards the upkeep of the church.

Churches can ask for repairs to the chancel – the area where the altar stands in a church. Until the Reformation in the 16th Century, the rector had to raise the funds for the repairs, but after that date landowners in the parish were landed with the bill.

Since the 16th century, the land has often been sold, divided and subdivided many times, but the law still stands – and has been put into practice.

In 2003 for example, the House of Lords ruled on a chancel repair case where a church looked to a homeowner to pay £100,000 to repair the chancel. The homeowner argued against the bill, but the court found in favour of the church.
The homeowner then had to sell the property to pay for the repairs and legal fees which came to more than £300,000.

Just a few weeks ago, homeowners in east Norfolk were sent warning letters from a law firm which told them that they could have to cough up cash because of Chancel Repair Liability, which under legalese terms and conditions, is ‘legally binding’ because of the ‘obligation’ to the local church which dates back to the Medieval period.

St Andrew’s church in Norfolk is centuries old but has the 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.

This effectively means that even though a homeowner may “own” part of the land, it still comes under the rule and ownership of the church who can then at any time, demand a hefty bill from whoever happens to live there, even if the land has been re-sold again and again.

The Church of England reckons chancel repair bills could be levied against more than 5,000 homes in England. As almost half of churches are Grade 1 listed, even minor repairs can run to significant costs.

Around 890 homes in Gorleston alone have received letters from local solicitors 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 in question responded by telling residents that it was “unlikely” that they would have to pay.

At the time the letters were sent out, Reverend Steve Bradford of St Andrew’s claimed that he had no idea that solicitors acting on behalf of the Land Registry had sent these letters out.

He then said that for a £50 levy, residents can buy exemption certificates from the church which he claims would free them from any liability. The money would then go to the PCC.

He said: “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.”

However, Chris Taylor, a Chancel Repair Liability expert and associate at Norfolk solicitors firm Hansells told homeowners that they should be concerned – adding that another option for those with a mortgage might be to purchase very expensive insurance, in the event that they are selected to pay for what is effectively a religious tax.

Mr Taylor added: “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.”

Now for new homeowners, it is worth mentioning that on October 13th, the law was changed which could automatically free some homeowners of liability – unless the church registers an interest at the Land Registry when a property is sold.

However, those who acquired the property before October 13th 2013, may still be subject to a nasty surprise coming through their letterbox.

Legal experts are urging homeowners to check their title deeds for a chancel repair liability.

It is also worth homeowners learning more about common law which could teach them how to respond if they are then asked to foot “repair bills” for their local church.

Under common law, requests for money are invalid unless there is a contractual agreement in place and it is the obligation of the party requesting the money to produce such a document, which must contain the original ink signature of both parties.

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