From the outset, the Wallbanks not only fought to defend themselves but hoped that contesting the Church’s unfair and unchristian demands on Human Rights grounds would lead to a repeal of the unjust and archaic law.
Andrew Wallbank is himself a church warden serving in his local parish and well understands the financial problems facing PCCs. Hunting down “lay-rectors” to pay for repairs will alienate the very communities which the church is there to serve and on whom the Church depends for its viability.
The farm in Warwickshire is not a 'luxury weekend retreat' but land that has been worked by the family for decades, serving as the source of their farming livelihood and, it was hoped, the couple's pension.
Gail Wallbank's father bought the land to farm in Aston Cantlow in 1970. A clause in the deeds noted an ancient lay rector liability (see 'History of the Law' for a full explanation). This was queried by the previous owner in 1968 and the then vicar and Parochial Church Council (PCC) were told by Coventry Diocese's legal advisors that the liability had no weight in law. But in 1990 the PCC of Aston Cantlow transformed what was once regarded as an interesting historic connection of the land with the local church into a financial and legal ordeal. They wrote demanding money for repair to the chancel (this is the part of a church at the altar end which, before the Reformation, had been the clergy’s responsibility to keep in good repair).
"We were very surprised," says Andrew Wallbank. They said they would be happy to give a voluntary contribution if the PCC would confirm that there was no legal obligation. A year went by before a dossier of photocopies of old legal papers arrived. It appeared that they had identified in the Enclosure Awards of 1744 a field of just under 7 acres which was old church land and which prevented them from receiving grants from English Heritage. The Wallbanks wrote to the then Vicar offering to work with the PCC to resolve the grant problem; this offer was never acknowledged.
The couple offered to donate the field, worth more than £21,000, which had the potential for development or community use and would make the church eligible to receive grants. This offer was rejected. Afterall, an ongoing 'open cheque-book' to be passed from generation to generation is a valuable asset to the Church.
So the Wallbanks had no option but to fight the demands incurring vast legal costs. If they 'just paid up' the initial amount there was nothing to stop the church persisting in demanding more and more each year ad infinitum.
The High Court found the couple liable for the chancel repair costs, but the Appeal Court overturned this, ruling that the law was unjust and contravened the couple's Human Rights, declaring that the Wallbanks should be released of the obligation.However, the PCC appealed to the House of Lords, dragging the case into new legal depths. By this time, the couple were forced to remortgage their house to pay off the lawyers. The House of Lords, though not condoning this law and the implementation of it, ruled that PCCs are not Public Bodies and are therefore exempt from adhering to the Human Rights Act (HRA) and Convention. The HRA would normally protect private individuals from unreasonable, arbitrary, and unfair demands by statutory bodies. However, because of the exemption the Wallbanks must pay.
To decide the final repair bill amount, the case went back to the High Court where Mr Wallbank was forced to represent himself as they had run out of money to pay the legal fees.
The judgement found them liable for a bill for repairs totalling £186,986, plus VAT and costs, which will bring the total up to approximately £250,000 – in addition to the £200,000 they’ve spent over the years fighting the case.
In order to pay, the Wallbanks, who have seven children, will have to sell the farm in Warwickshire, BUT while it has the chancel liability attached to it, the property is unsaleable and effectively worthless. The PCC have made doubly sure of this by registering a caution at the Land Registry stating that the land cannot be sold, mortaged or given awaywithout the consent of the PCC.
Even if the Wallbanks suddenly came across the £1/4 million to pay the church, there is nothing to stop the PCC continuing to demand more and more money each year once the initial bill is settled.