Prisoners of the Past
14th August 2012

This probably won’t come as a surprise to you, coming as it does only a few months after the Diamond Jubilee, but Britain has never had a revolution. It’s had an industrial revolution, a civil war and numerous constitutional crises but never a full-blown, guillotine-brandishing revolution that swept all before it. And for the most part we tend not to notice, unless you live in an area regularly affected by Town Criers.

But the Past is more than just tea rooms and people dressed as Saxons in your local park, especially in a legal context. Because there was no formal break with the laws of the past, the decrees of our ancestors can still have weight today, and no more so than the recent debate regarding Chancel Repair Liability.

What is Chancel Repair Liability? Needless to say, it’s complicated (as any 500 year old law would be) but in short it’s a legacy of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Back in the Middle Ages, a local Rector (which was different from a vicar for reasons that we won’t go into here) would have had lands of his own. The profits from these lands would have been used to repair and maintain the chancel of the rector’s church (which, if you’re wondering, is the area around the altar. The rest of the church was the responsibility of the parishioners). During the dissolution of the monasteries, the lands belonging to the rectors was confiscated and sold off, but the responsibility for repairing the chancel was never removed. It stayed with the land.

Now you may think ‘So what?’ Britain has a host of archaic laws, everything from the legal right to fire a crossbow at ne’er-do-wells from the town walls after 10 o’ clock at night to driving your geese to market on St Cuthbert’s Day, how can it still be applicable? Well, as you might have already guessed, it does. Across the country, Parish Councils are being asked by Church Authorities to investigate their records before the deadline to register these charges expire in October 2013. Insurance Companies are also exerting pressure on Parish Councils to investigate Chancel Liability in order to limit claims where a lay rector may exist.  English Heritage has also issued a statement that where a Lay Rector exists, grant funding for repairs to the chancel will not be available.

Clearly, the issue of Chancel Repair is not a quaint historical anachronism, but a real and on-going situation. Needless to say some Parish Councils are reluctant to investigate their records, recognising that sending a bill for several thousand pounds to neighbours is not a lasting route to popularity. Yet, being charities, they are required by law to maximise all sources of revenue, irrespective of complexity and, strange as it may sound, feelings of morality. To refuse to investigate Chancel Repair leads the Parish into a legal grey area. Needless to say, the issue has a long way to go before 13th October 2013.

But whatever happens, a law dating back to Henry VIII is still having consequences today and you can only hope that we don’t try and claim the Kingdom of France again.

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