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What is Chancel Repair Liability?

Emma Lunn

Written by

9th Aug 2021 (Last updated on 17th Dec 2021) 5 minute read

‘Chancel repairs’ relate to ancient laws about who pays for the upkeep of the local church. The chancel is the easterly portion of a church where the altar is situated.

If you buy certain properties in England and Wales, you could unintentionally be taking on responsibility for maintaining the local church (whether you go to church or not). The historic right for churches to impose these charges goes back many hundreds of years.

On the plus side, if chancel repair liability applies to your property the chances of receiving a bill from the local church are relatively small. But on the downside, if you’re really unlucky, you could be billed for hundreds of thousands of pounds and end up with a legal fight on your hands.

Theoretically, chancel repair liability shouldn’t catch out people who bought a property or land after 2013 as the rules changed then. But, in reality, it’s still possible to be landed with a bill and it’s a complicated area of law.

This article will cover the following:
  1. Where Do Chancel Repairs Come From?
  2. How Did Chancel Repair Rules Change in 2012?
  3. How Can I Protect Myself From Chancel Repair Liability?
  4. Learn More About Conveyancing

Where Do Chancel Repairs Come From?

Chancel repair liability tends to apply to older homes, rather than more recently built properties in England and Wales. However, it’s still a risk that needs to be assessed before you buy a property.

The basis of chancel repair liability goes back to the 16th century and the establishment of the Church of England. Henry VIII sold monasteries to buyers, the sale of which resulted in the transfer of the chancel’s repair responsibilities from the monks to the new buyers. Most monasteries were later sold but the liability for chancel repairs remained attached to the land.

Some repair responsibilities extend to land relatively far from the parish church in question. These responsibilities are perpetual – never-ending – and are passed on when a property is sold as well as when a property is knocked down and rebuilt (it’s the land the property sits on that holds the liability).

Perhaps more worrying for homebuyers is the fact that liability for chancel repairs is ‘joint and several’. This means that any one of the affected homeowners is responsible for the full amount of the repairs. This could end up being thousands of pounds – or hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Churches don’t often ask for payments so it’s possible that sellers of affected properties may not be aware that the property has a chancel liability. This means it’s up to buyers, or their solicitors, to do their homework.

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How Did Chancel Repair Rules Change in 2012?

In 2012, the government reviewed chancel repair liability and introduced some changes intended to make it easier to identify affected properties.

The new rules meant that chancel repair liability had to be registered at the Land Registry by 13 October 2013. Churches were advised to register that the liability existed, whether or not they planned to bill homeowners.

However, if the church didn’t register a notice by 13 October 2013, it didn’t mean it couldn’t register a liability later on. However, the right was usually lost when a property changed hands for ‘valuable consideration’ – i.e. was sold.

If you bought a property on the open market after October 2013 and the church hadn’t then registered a notice with the Land Registry, you probably won’t receive a surprise bill for chancel repairs. But if you received a property as a gift or inheritance, or owned it prior to October 2013 and still own it now, or you know that chancel repairs apply to your property, a bill could potentially land on your doormat.

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How Can I Protect Myself From Chancel Repair Liability?

There are a few ways you can protect yourself from chancel repair.

Chancel repair liability searches

To ascertain whether a property is liable for chancel repairs, a conveyancing solicitor can carry out a chancel repair liability search alongside the other conveyancing searches (environmental, water and drainage, local authority and Land Registry) done during the conveyancing process.

Your conveyancer may suggest this search if the property you are buying is within the parish of a church that dates back to 1536 or earlier.

There are two main types of chancel search:

  • A ‘chancel check’ report will reveal whether a property is within a parish where a potential chancel repair liability exists.
  • A ‘full chancel search’ will involve a search agent visiting the Public Records Office to inspect maps which will reveal if your property is liable for chancel repair.

How much does a chancel search cost?

A chancel check search costs about £20 plus VAT. A full chancel search is more comprehensive and will cost about £100 plus VAT. This search can take longer to complete and may not come back with a definitive result.

Chancel repair liability insurance

If a chancel repairs liability exists, or you can’t be sure if it exists, you will usually need to get an indemnity insurance policy to protect both you and your mortgage lender to cover any costs should a claim be made by the church.

This type of insurance is normally known as:

  • Chancel liability
  • Chancel repair liability insurance
  • Chancel repair
  • Chancel insurance
  • Chancel indemnity insurance

This insurance protects you from any costs you’d have to pay to the church, including legal expenses. It covers any repairs you’ll have to pay for, so you’re not caught out by a large bill out of the blue.

There are two kinds of chancel repair insurance. The first is suitable if a full chancel search has not been done and you want to insure against the possibility of being liable.

This insurance is normally about £20 – so often cheaper than getting the search done.

If there is a known liability that you’re aware of, you can insure against a claim being made. This type of cover is more expensive, but not prohibitively so, and normally costs from £40 upwards.

It is often seen as more cost effective to take out the chancel indemnity insurance without completing a chancel search.

Is chancel repair insurance a one-off payment?

Indemnity policies typically cover you for £1,000,000 – this should be sufficient cover for most realistic claims.

Chancel repair insurance policies vary in how long they last. One of the following will normally apply:

  • The policy will last ‘in perpetuity’ (forever)
  • The policy will cover you for 25 years
  • The policy will cover you for the duration of your ownership of the property

Learn More About Conveyancing

This article has been part of our conveyancing guide. The next article in our series is all about conveyancing disbursements. To find out more read what is an engrossment fee.

Emma Lunn

Written by Emma Lunn

Freelance Personal Finance Journalist,

Emma Lunn is an award-winning journalist who specialises in personal finance, consumer issues and property.

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