Church law may contravene convention

Roger Pearson reports on a High Court case which has a church claiming that landowners should pay one of its repair bills.

A Warwickshire couple are waiting to hear the outcome of a bizarre legal battle in which their local church claims that they are legally bound to foot a £95,000 bill for repairs to the church.

The parochial church council of the Parish of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley claims that under the provisions of the Chancel Repairs Act 1932 Andrew and Gail Wallbank are obliged to pay for repairs to the church’s chancel.

The Wallbanks own Glebe Farm, Aston Cantlow, which is classified as “rectorial property”. This gives the Wallbanks the status of “lay rectors” and according to church authorities one of their duties is to pay for repairs to the chancel.

The church says that in order to ward off the claim the Wallbanks have to prove that it has been a custom in the parish “since time immemorial” that someone other than the lay rectors has footed the bill for chancel repairs.

However, the church claims that the only time past repair work was not paid for by the parish’s lay rectors was when emergency work was carried out in 1987. It says that in 1968 a request for repair cash was made to the lay rector and he paid.

In those circumstances it claims the Wallbanks have no choice but to pay.

Mr Justice Ferris has reserved judgment in the High Court case on the question of whether the laws contained in the Chancel Repairs Act do impose a legal duty on the Wallbanks to pay, while he considers the implications of the European Convention on Human Rights.

A provision of the convention states that “every natural or legal person is entitled to peaceful enjoyment of his possessions” and that “no one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to conditions provided for by law and by general principles of international law”.

But the church says that the repair liabilities imposed on the Wallbanks do not breach the convention provisions.

Sarah Asplin, counsel for the church, told the judge: “The liability imposed on the defendants is imposed upon them personally, albeit by reason of their ownership of particular land and is not a direct charge on the land itself. Accordingly it cannot be characterised as an interference with the peaceful enjoyment of the defendants’ possessions.”

No date has been fixed for the ruling.