Parochial Church Council v Wallbank

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
Judgment Date26 June 2003
Neutral Citation[2003] UKHL 37
Date26 June 2003
CourtHouse of Lords
Parochial Church Council of the Parish of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley, Warwickshire

and another


[2003] UKHL 37

The Appellate Committee comprised:

Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead

Lord Hope of Craighead

Lord Hobhouse of Woodborough

Lord Scott of Foscote

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry



My Lords,


I have had the advantage of reading in draft the speeches of all your Lordships. I too would allow this appeal. On some of the issues your Lordships have expressed different views. I shall state my own views without repeating the facts.


This case concerns one of the more arcane and unsatisfactory areas of property law: the liability of a lay rector, or lay impropriator, for the repair of the chancel of a church. The very language is redolent of a society long disappeared. The anachronistic, even capricious, nature of this ancient liability was recognised some years ago by the Law Commission: Property Law: Liability for Chancel Repairs (1985) Law Com No 152. The commission said 'this relic of the past' is 'no longer acceptable'. The commission recommended its phased abolition.


In these proceedings Mr and Mrs Wallbank admitted that, apart from the Human Rights Act 1998, they have no defence to the claim made against them by the Parochial Church Council of the parish of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley, Warwickshire. The House was not asked to consider whether the case of Wickhambrook Parochial Church Council v Croxford [1935] 2 KB 417 was correctly decided.


At first sight the Human Rights Act might seem to have nothing to do with the present case. The events giving rise to the litigation occurred, and the decision of Ferris J was given, before the Act came into force. But the decision of the Court of Appeal was based on the provisions of the Human Rights Act, and this decision has wide financial implications for the Church of England, going far beyond the outcome of this particular case: [2002] Ch 51. The decision affects numerous parochial church councils and perhaps as many as one third of all parish churches. The Church of England needs to know whether, as the Court of Appeal held, it is unlawful now for a parochial church council to enforce a lay rector's obligation to meet the cost of chancel repairs. Accordingly, in order to obtain the decision of the House on this point, the plaintiff parochial church council conceded that the Human Rights Act 1998 applies in this case. This concession having been made by the plaintiff, no argument was addressed to your Lordships' House on the question of law thus conceded. I express no view on this question.


Assuming the Human Rights Act is applicable in this case, the overall question is whether the plaintiff's prosecution of proceedings against Mr and Mrs Wallbank is rendered unlawful by section 6 of the Act as an act by a public authority which is incompatible with a Convention right. In answering this question the initial step is to consider whether the plaintiff is 'a public authority'.


The expression 'public authority' is not defined in the Act, nor is it a recognised term of art in English law, that is, an expression with a specific recognised meaning. The word 'public' is a term of uncertain import, used with many different shades of meaning: public policy, public rights of way, public property, public authority (in the Public Authorities Protection Act 1893), public nuisance, public house, public school, public company. So in the present case the statutory context is all important. As to that, the broad purpose sought to be achieved by section 6(1) is not in doubt. The purpose is that those bodies for whose acts the state is answerable before the European Court of Human Rights shall in future be subject to a domestic law obligation not to act incompatibly with Convention rights. If they act in breach of this legal obligation victims may henceforth obtain redress from the courts of this country. In future victims should not need to travel to Strasbourg.


Conformably with this purpose, the phrase 'a public authority' in section 6(1) is essentially a reference to a body whose nature is governmental in a broad sense of that expression. It is in respect of organisations of this nature that the government is answerable under the European Convention on Human Rights. Hence, under the Human Rights Act a body of this nature is required to act compatibly with Convention rights in everything it does. The most obvious examples are government departments, local authorities, the police and the armed forces. Behind the instinctive classification of these organisations as bodies whose nature is governmental lie factors such as the possession of special powers, democratic accountability, public funding in whole or in part, an obligation to act only in the public interest, and a statutory constitution: see the valuable article by Professor Dawn Oliver, 'The Frontiers of the State: Public Authorities and Public Functions under the Human Rights Act', [2000] PL 476.


A further, general point should be noted. One consequence of being a 'core' public authority, namely, an authority falling within section 6 without reference to section 6(3), is that the body in question does not itself enjoy Convention rights. It is difficult to see how a core public authority could ever claim to be a victim of an infringement of a Convention rights. A core public authority seems inherently incapable of satisfying the Convention description of a victim: 'any person, non-governmental organisation or group of individuals' (article 34, with emphasis added). Only victims of an unlawful act may bring proceedings under section 7 of the Human Rights Act, and the Convention description of a victim has been incorporated into the Act, by section 7(7). This feature, that a core public authority is incapable of having Convention rights of its own, is a matter to be borne in mind when considering whether or not a particular body is a core public authority. In itself this feature throws some light on how the expression 'public authority' should be understood and applied. It must always be relevant to consider whether Parliament can have been intended that the body in question should have no Convention rights.


In a modern developed state governmental functions extend far beyond maintenance of law and order and defence of the realm. Further, the manner in which wide ranging governmental functions are discharged varies considerably. In the interests of efficiency and economy, and for other reasons, functions of a governmental nature are frequently discharged by non-governmental bodies. Sometimes this will be a consequence of privatisation, sometimes not. One obvious example is the running of prisons by commercial organisations. Another is the discharge of regulatory functions by organisations in the private sector, for instance, the Law Society. Section 6(3)(b) gathers this type of case into the embrace of section 6 by including within the phrase 'public authority' any person whose functions include 'functions of a public nature'. This extension of the expression 'public authority' does not apply to a person if the nature of the act in question is 'private'.


Again, the statute does not amplify what the expression 'public' and its counterpart 'private' mean in this context. But, here also, given the statutory context already mentioned and the repetition of the description 'public', essentially the contrast being drawn is between functions of a governmental nature and functions, or acts, which are not of that nature. I stress, however, that this is no more than a useful guide. The phrase used in the Act is public function, not governmental function.


Unlike a core public authority, a 'hybrid' public authority, exercising both public functions and non-public functions, is not absolutely disabled from having Convention rights. A hybrid public authority is not a public authority in respect of an act of a private nature. Here again, as with section 6(1), this feature throws some light on the approach to be adopted when interpreting section 6(3)(b). Giving a generously wide scope to the expression 'public function' in section 6(3)(b) will further the statutory aim of promoting the observance of human rights values without depriving the bodies in question of the ability themselves to rely on Convention rights when necessary.


What, then, is the touchstone to be used in deciding whether a function is public for this purpose? Clearly there is no single test of universal application. There cannot be, given the diverse nature of governmental functions and the variety of means by which these functions are discharged today. Factors to be taken into account include the extent to which in carrying out the relevant function the body is publicly funded, or is exercising statutory powers, or is taking the place of central government or local authorities, or is providing a public service.


Turning to the facts in the present case, I do not think parochial church councils are 'core' public authorities. Historically the Church of England has discharged an important and influential role in the life of this country. As the established church it still has special links with central government. But the Church of England remains essentially a religious organisation. This is so even though some of the emanations of the church discharge functions which may qualify as governmental. Church schools and the conduct of marriage services are two instances. The legislative powers of the General Synod of the Church of England are another. This should not be regarded as infecting the Church of England as a whole, or its emanations in general, with the...

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