Incredible though it may sound, historic rules going back to the time of Henry VIII are still having a direct impact on property owners. At the time of the Reformation the monasteries were powerful landowners and, in some cases, land formerly belonging to those monasteries which was sold off by Henry VIII following their dissolution can still find itself the subject of a liability known as a Chancel Repair Liability (CRL) to contribute towards the upkeep of the chancel of the local church.

The CRLs have existed for hundreds of years but the reason these CRLs are coming to people’s attention now is that due to rules brought to encourage the registration of properties and matters affecting them, if a right to enforce a CRL is not protected by some sort of registration by October 2013 the affected land will, on a sale, cease to be bound by the liability.

So whilst historically CRLs may have existed, in the majority of cases they may well have done so, unknown to the affected landowners or perhaps forgotten about and unenforced. Following a case a few years ago which reminded people of the continuing affect of CRLs, recent conveyancing practice has been to take out insurance to guard against the risk of a CRL turning out to bind those properties which are at obvious risk of such a liability.

However once a CRL is identified and registered against a property, this is likely to have an immediate and adverse affect on both the value and saleability of the affected property. Land which may have started as agricultural land and in a single ownership might now be covered in houses all of which might be affected. Once a CRL registration is made, insurance may be considerably more expensive if available at all.

The person with the right to seek the contribution and enforce the CRL from the landowner is the Parochial Church Council (PCC) of the relevant parish. PCCs are charities and are being obliged to act because that right to enforce the CRL is in effect seen as an asset of the PCC. The members of the PCC (essentially the ‘trustees’ of that charity), are under a legal obligation to protect the assets of that charity or to risk personal liability for breaching that duty. There are also suggestions that a failure to enforce a right to a CRL could impact on the availability of grant funding for the PCC.

Whilst many PCCs would be delighted to receive a financial contribution to the overheads of maintaining the chancel, they are equally concerned about the adverse affect on their pastoral work within a parish which the registration of notices to protect CRL against the properties of their parishioners (perhaps even against the homes of the PCC members) may have. Some PCCs are seeking a dispensation from the Charity Commission from this duty to register and enforce their right to CRL for just this reason.

Property owners receiving notice from the Land Registry that an application has been made to make such a registration against their property will want to look closely at the merits of the application. In some cases there may be an opportunity to ‘buy off’ the CRL but this will not be straightforward and of course will itself come at a cost.

All in all it’s a somewhat unfortunate situation for all parties and what is clear is that we will be hearing more about this issue over the coming months.