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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 June, 2003, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
350,000 blow for church couple
Church in Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire
The Wallbanks are 'lay rectors' at the church in Warwickshire
A couple will have to pay 100,000 for repairs to an ancient church in England about 100 miles from their mid Wales home.

Andrew Wallbank, 60, and his wife Gail, 53, from Plasnewydd, Carno in Powys could also face legal costs of up to 250,000 after losing out in a ruling by the highest court in the land on Thursday.

The House of Lords ruled the new Human Rights Act could not exempt the couple, who own a farm on church land in Aston Cantlow in Warwickshire, from their liability as 'lay rectors' to repair the church there.

The couple say they will now consider appealing to the European Court of Human Rights.

In a landmark decision, the five Law Lords unanimously allowed an appeal by the parochial church council for the Warwickshire parish in its test case claim against couple.

The legal bills could cost us up to 250,000 which means we will have to sell the Warwickshire farm
Andrew Wallbank

The Law Lords agreed with the parish's claim that the Wallbanks are obliged to foot the bill for repairs to the chancel in the village on the basis that the Wallbanks' farm is rectorial property.

Andrew and Gail Wallbank
Andrew and Gail Wallbank after the 'devastating' decision
This means that the couple, as "lay rectors", are responsible for church overheads.

Arcane

The case could leave hundreds of other property owners throughout the UK facing the threat of being forced to pay for church repairs.

Lord Nicholls said the 1932 law at the centre of the case was "one of the more arcane and unsatisfactory areas of property law" and stressed the need for reform.

But he ruled that the Human Rights Act could not protect the Wallbanks from its effects.

"The anachronistic, even capricious nature of this ancient liability was recognised some years ago by the Law Commission," said Lord Nicholls.

"It said this relic of the past is no longer acceptable and the need for reform has not lessened with the passage of time."

Internal view of church in Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire
Church overheads are the responsibility of the couple

Lord Hope said that while the 1932 law was open to criticism on various grounds it was difficult to see how to replace it.

The Law Lords ruled that parochial church councils are not public authorities.

This meant that the Human Rights Act defence used by the Wallbanks could not defend them.

In May 2002, the Wallbanks thought they had won their battle after the Court of Appeal overturned a High Court ruling that the couple had to pay the 96,000 bill to repair the church.

Speaking after the decision, Mr Wallbank said he would consider appealing to the European Court in Strasbourg which is now the only avenue left for the couple.

"I am not so worried about the cost of repairing the chancel because we now know we can access grants for this," he added.

"The legal bills could cost us up to 250,000 which means we will have to sell the Warwickshire farm."

The farm was left to the Wallbanks on the death of Mrs Wallbank's father.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Andrew Wallbank
"We are devastated and very surprised"



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