Owners of land in the UK once belonging to a church in Medieval times, known as rectorial land, considered lay rectors. As such, they are liable for the upkeep of the chancel, an area in the church near the alter.
Although this law hasn’t been implemented with any regularity, it recently made headlines around the world.
Gail and Andrew Wallbank recently took a case to the Supreme Court of Judicature in the U.K. The couple own a farm that was once called Clanacre, which was involved in a land exchange in 1743 by a Lord Brooke that made this plot a rectorial property.
Their local church was charging them with upkeep, at an expense that would require them to sell their property. But who would buy a property that had such strings attached?
At What Damages?
Historically, the significance of relationships with rectorial land was more spiritual, which the Wallbanks might have been able to live with. The court explains:
The penalty for breach of this obligation was admonition by ecclesiastical courts, followed – if the breach continued – by excommunication. If these spiritual expedients failed, the final resort was committal by the High Court for contempt of the ecclesiastical court.
The court further conceded,
It noted without dissent the criticism that the law on this topic was
“anomalous, uncertain and obscure”, capable of creating financial hardship and unsuited to a modern society.
But 17 years of bringing the case before the courts has resulted in £420,000 in legal fees. The court awarded half of the plaintiff’s request for damages, resulting in an additional £186,969.
The 2003 Appeal even troublingly established that the Parochial Church Council (PCC) that issues such claims is exempt from the UK Human Rights Act. The Wallbanks are considering an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
And the implications of this case could be enormous. There are 3.5 million acres of land in England and Wales that could be considered rectorial property.
Old Ontario Laws
The Statute Labour Act, based on colonial settlement of Upper Canada, states,
Number of days of statute labour
3. (1) Every person assessed upon the assessment roll of a township that has not passed a by-law abolishing statute labour is, if his or her property is assessed at not more than $300, liable to two days statute labour; at more than $300 but not more than $500, three days; at more than $500 but not more than $700, four days; at more than $700 but not more than $900, five days; and for every $300 over $900, or any fractional part thereof over $150, one additional day; but the council may, by a by-law operating generally and rateable, reduce or increase the number of days labour to which all the persons rated on the assessment roll or otherwise, shall be respectively liable so that the number of days labour to which each person is liable shall be in proportion to the amount at which he or she is assessed, and in all cases both of residents and non-residents the statute labour shall be rated and charged against every separate lot or parcel according to its assessed value. R.S.O. 1990, c. S.20, s. 3 (1).
S. 6 does allow for by-laws to be passed that would abolish statute labour. But if otherwise enacted, Aaron’s claims that given modern property values, those called upon under the Act could be required to perform the absurd requirement of more than 365 days of labour in a year.
His call to repeal the Statute Labour Law appears well founded. But fortunately students (including law students) are exempt under s. 2 anyways, so we’re not in any rush to change it any time soon.