THE PCC of St George’s, Hanworth, failed in its attempt to obtain an injunction against Hounslow Borough Council in respect of a site known as Rectory Court, which is registered at the Land Registry as being in the ownership of the borough.
The site is immediately adjacent to what appears to be the churchyard and curtilage of St George’s church and hall, although the church land immediately adjacent to the site is vested in the London Diocesan Fund, and a children’s nursery has been built on it.
The site was acquired by Hounslow Borough Council’s predecessor, Feltham Urban District Council, from private owners who had been registered with title absolute for many years. For about 69 years, Hounslow Borough Council or its statutory predecessors have been the registered proprietors of the site, with freehold title absolute.
The borough intends to develop the site, which has been, and will remain, in residential use, and has planning permission to do so. The PCC applied for an injunction to prevent the development. The application for the injunction was initiated in December 2014 by the Priest-in-Charge at St George’s, the Revd Paul Williamson, supported by one of the churchwardens, Janet Tewkesbury.
The Chancellor of the diocese of London, His Honour Judge Seed QC, held a case-management hearing in May 2015, when it was pointed out that, in July 1997, Fr Williamson had been declared a vexatious litigant under a Civil Proceedings Order, and needed the leave of the High Court to bring the application.
The proceedings were then stayed to enable Fr Williamson to apply to the High Court for leave. In June 2015, the High Court refused leave.
The PCC took the view that Fr Williamson had a legitimate case, and wished to see the application proceed. The Chancellor, “with some reluctance”, gave leave for the application to proceed, on the basis that it would be treated as an application by the PCC and not by Fr Williamson, thereby complying with the High Court’s refusal of leave for Fr Williamson to bring proceedings.
Fr Williamson was not to participate in the proceedings, except that he would be permitted to give evidence.
The PCC sought a decision on the consecrated status of the site as well as its alleged continued ownership by the benefice, an injunction against Hounslow Borough Council restraining it from carrying out building works on the site, and an order for compensation for lost burial income going back some 50 years. The existing churchyard was not indicated in the registry records as having been closed for burials by Order in Council.
At the hearing, the borough was represented by a barrister, David Lamming, and the PCC was represented by Mrs Tewkesbury. The Chancellor said that Mrs Tewkesbury was “in some difficulty: first, because she was completely unable to adduce any evidence that the site had once been part of the consecrated churchyard, and was still consecrated, and, second, she was subject to frequent prompting and intervention from Fr Williamson”, and it was “evident . . . that Fr Williamson had conduct of the proceedings”.
Mrs Tewkesbury said that the site had been designated as vacant land before it was acquired by Feltham Council, and she also disputed the accuracy of the Land Registry’s plan on the borough’s title, which had been undisputed and acquiesced in for over 60 years.
On the basis of the evidence before him, the Chancellor dismissed the application, and said that it “appeared to be an opportunistic and unjustified attempt to extract money from the borough”.