Ghost of a chance

Our lawyer Fiona McNulty looks at the legal issues for a block of flats built on church grounds - with liability for chancel repair costs falling on the neighbouring landowners
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Question: I live in a 33-year-old block of flats. Each owner has one share of the freehold and a 999-year lease.

The block was built on the site of an old church building and a small section of the original wall is shared with an adjacent house.

Recently, two incoming flat-buyers have been advised by their solicitors to take out extra insurance against the possibility of the church returning to levy a charge as a result of a recent House of Lords case.

Is this possible after 33 years, and does the fact that we own a share of the freehold absolve us from a possible future charge?

Answer: It is difficult to comment without seeing your leasehold title deeds and those of your freehold. However, there are two possibilities. First, there could be old covenants that relate to the use of the land. If they have not been released, your neighbours’ lawyers may have suggested indemnity insurance to cover any breach.

Second, the indemnity insurance could be for a chancel repair liability. As there is evidence that the church has been involved, it appears to be the more likely reason for indemnity insurance.

The cost of repairing the chancel of a parish church is generally met either by the parochial church council, the representative body of the Church of England and Wales, other ecclesiastical bodies or educational establishments, but in some rare cases, neighbouring landowners are liable.

The case to which I think your neighbours are referring is that of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley Parochial Church Council v Wallbank. When a property is being purchased, a vigilant solicitor should carry out a chancel check. This will show whether there is any potential liability for chancel repairs.

You have mentioned that little remains of the ecclesiastical building, but it is not clear from your question whether the building was actually a church or a building ancillary to the church.

You may like to find out whether your solicitor considered this issue when you bought the property.

What's your problem?

If you have a question for Fiona McNulty, email We regret that questions cannot be answered individually.

Fiona is a partner in the property team at Thring Townsend Lee & Pembertons Solicitors

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