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Chancel-repair liability comes under scrutiny

12 October 2012

CHANCEL-REPAIR liability (CRL) and the legal advice given to PCCs by the Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod will come under Parliamentary scrutiny next week, in a debate sponsored by the MP for Mid Worcestershire, Peter Luff.

The MP, who is campaigning for a change in the law to remove liability from private home-owners, will "turn the finger of blame to the Church of England" because, he is expected to say, "it made no attempt to understand the implications of the advice it had offered, nor any guidance as to how dioceses should explain the other option open to the PCCs."

He will say: "The Church of England must act urgently to help PCCs navigate their way round the minefield that they are required to pass through. And the Government must do more than casually assert that chancel-repair liability is a legitimate property right. . . it must find a way of ensuring that the liability is fairly applied, and that the outrageous arbitrariness of this archaic law is ended."

After the Aston Cantlow case, the Government passed legislation that requires PCCs to register liability, where it exists, with the Land Registry by October next year; otherwise, the ability to enforce will lapse when the property is next sold. Failure to register could result in PCC members' being found to be "in breach of trust" and personally liable for the cost of repairs. But a PCC does not have to register the liability where it can show that to do so would "conflict with the aims of the charity" or "hamper a charity's work".

The Charity Commission has issued new guidance, which states that PCC members "will be protected from liability if they can show that they acted honestly and reasonably and ought fairly to be excused. PCC members must therefore be satisfied that any decision not to register chancel-repair liability is consistent with their duties, taking account of their PCC's particular circumstances."

The Commission emphasises that "decisions about whether to enforce chancel-repair liability are a matter for the trustees of the relevant PCC charity, acting with the benefit of professional advice where appropriate."

It says that they can do so without seeking the approval of the Charity Commission; but they will provide "confirmation that their decision . . . is reasonable" if the "PCCs consider there is a real likelihood of their decision being challenged, and they are able to present us with a substantive case explaining how they have reached their decision."

The Heritage Lottery Fund, which assumes responsibility for grants to listed places of worship from April next year, says that it will abandon English Heritage's position of refusing to provide grants where a PCC does not pursue CRL. "We will no longer follow the highly detailed financial needs assessment model as currently used. Neither will we continue with the blanket policy that considers chancel repairs where there is a lay rector to be outside the scope of grant aid. We will also be realistic about their ability to fund-raise, and therefore we will not encourage the PCC to pursue chancel-repair liability on occasions where it is evidently unreasonable for them to do so."

The Legal Advisory Commission has reviewed its legal advice to parishes in light of the decision by the Charity Commission to grant a number of dispensations (News, 31 August); but has decided not to amend it.

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