Judge bemoans the £750,000 spent fighting Spitalfields legal case

03 March 2017

CERIDWEN/GEOGRAPH/COMMONS

A CHURCH-SCHOOL building in east London which cost £1.5 million to erect has been saved from demolition, after a judge granted a confirmatory faculty for its retention, and refused an application for a restoration order requiring that the building be demolished. The ruling also criticised the conduct of all parties, and the legal costs incurred, during the two-year-long dispute.

A group of campaigners, Spitalfields Open Space (SOS) Ltd, applied for a restoration order under the Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1991, in respect of a school building erected by the governing body of Christ Church Primary School on a disused burial ground in the churchyard of Christ Church, Spitalfields (News, 9 January 2015).

It failed to persuade the Consistory Court of the diocese of London in December 2014, but won its appeal to the Court of Arches of Canterbury Province a year later (News, 2 October, 2015). The order was remitted back to the Consistory Court, in June.

Remarking on the legal challenge, the judge, the Deputy Chancellor of London diocese, June Rodgers, pointed to the legal costs incurred by all parties: £500,000 for the objectors (SOS) and £250,000 for the other parties (Christ Church School, the London Diocesan Board for Schools, and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets) — “costs that many, many churches struggling to fund repairs or necessary extensions, as I said at the opening of this hearing, can only read of and weep”.

In a 497-page ruling, issued on 5 February, Chancellor Rodgers stated that since the Disused Burial Grounds Act had been “initially missed” when the faculty was granted in February 2012, the building had been illegally erected.

Addressing whether a confirmatory faculty legalising the building should be granted, she referred to Section 4 of the Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction (Amendment) Measure, which came into force on 1 April 2015. It states that a court may grant permission to erect a building on a disused burial ground for purposes other than those laid out under the 1884 Act, on condition that no interments had taken place in the past 50 years, and that there were no objections from the family of the dead. “The conditions here are plainly satisfied,” she said.

Chancellor Rodgers considered the costs of demolition — estimated at £93,000 — and the “marginal” benefit the comparatively “modest” amount of open space would afford to the setting of the church and the community, should the building be demolished. A confirmatory order would be of greater benefit to the public, the church, and its worship and mission, she concluded.

The case served as a “really dreadful warning” to churches that relied on donations from “Friends” and charitable donors, she said: the legal relationship and “potential financial backlash” should be considered by all parties.

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