Olive Press turns the spotlight on the legal system as thousands are fined after paying for what they believed were legal houses
GRANDPARENTS Lyn and Peter Joyce are facing financial ruin after a 50,000 euro fine was slapped on their ‘illegally-built’ home.
As well as 4,000 euros levied for a pergola, they have also been hit with a bill for a retaining wall, a chimney and even putting a Venetian blind on their kitchen window.
The pensioners – both in their 60s and suffering medical problems as a result of the stress – are among thousands of expatriates across Andalucia facing huge fines for houses they believed they had correct planning permission for.
Now a hard-hitting EU report that threatens Spain with huge fines for environmental and planning abuse has singled out the local legal system as highly culpable in this illegal home-building scandal.
The report, in particular, condemns lawyers for their conflicting advice and a lack of interest in helping victims.
It says that in many cases the lawyers have been ‘an intrinsic part of the problem’.
The Olive Press has discovered numerous buyers have paid thousands of euros in legal fees to get their dream homes only to find they were never legal and never will be.
In one case in Tolox, a British family paid around 5,000 euros to a large well known legal firm for the conveyancing for a property, that was only passed as a tool shed, or almacen de aperos.
Peter and Jackie Chilvers have discovered that they are unlikely to ever get an occupation licence and that the home will never be legal.
The property, costing nearly 250,000 euros, could even now be repossessed or knocked down if they fail to pay a 23,000 euro fine.
“We feel conned by everyone. The town hall, the builders and particularly the lawyers,” said Jackie, a retired dental practice manager.
The couple, who have now written to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and asked him to investigate, have also demanded their paperwork back from the legal firm and are considering suing for damages.
While the lawyers’ office insisted they put it into writing that the couple would never get an occupation licence and that it would not be classified as a home, the Chilvers insist otherwise.
“We were never told it was a warehouse, or that we couldn’t officially live there,” continued Jackie, who insisted that all the paperwork from developer P3 stated clearly it was for ‘a house’.
“We thought we were buying a project for a proper home and we got a lawyer to do the paperwork.
“It is outrageous that you pay so much money for legal work that has left us in such a bad position.
“Now they are even demanding 4,500 euros from us to defend our case in court.
“We are stressed out and never know when we leave the house if someone is going to turn up and knock it down.”
They are just one couple out of a dozen neighbours who got planning permission for properties bought in the area known as Paraje Cerro del Ponton, near Tolox.
But unfairly, the Chilvers claim that half of the owners – including one allegedly owned by Tolox mayor Juan Vera – have not received fines.
“It is not fair that some people get fined and others not,” said Chilvers. “It stinks of corruption.”
Neighbours Lyn and Peter Joyce have a similar licence for a tool shed and are living under the same threat.
“We are ruined and have no savings to fall back on for the fine,” said Lyn, who estimates having paid around 2,000 euros to the same legal practice.
“We have done everything we were asked and were convinced that we had bought the land and built the property by the book.”
Despite declining to name the lawyers for legal reasons, we put a list of allegations to them. They insited that they acted within the law. “We have always informed clients of the situation and we have the paperwork to back that up,” said a spokesman.
But another lawyer Jon Sutton from fellow law firm De Cotta, said: “This predicament is sadly not all that uncommon. I have seen it many times.
“The licence was for an almacen which is for storage only but the addition of a chimney and a satellite dish shows that it is clearly a dwelling.
“They have been unlucky, but they should have been advised of the problem at the time of the purchase/construction.
“In addition the builders and their architect, if they knew the purpose intended, should have ensured that all the correct licences were in place for a vivienda (or dwelling).”
He also made the point that there may have been a conflict of interest with the legal firm apparently acting for both the purchasers and the developers at the time of purchase.
“This would mean they could not advise the couple to take actions against the developers”.
The Olive Press meanwhile has heard of dozens of similar examples around Andalucía and scandalously, in many of these cases, it appears lawyers and builders have been compliant in the deception.
One lawyer Francisco Garcia, working for Cordoba-based practice Garcia Montoya, said: “There have been so many cases of abuse of foreigners it is incredible.”
The solicitor has now helped to set up a website called www.spanish-properties-solicitors.com to help fight individual cases.
“We came across this while working for Irish buyers a few years ago. One guy got conned by his lawyers and estate agent into selling his home for a fraction of the real price.”
He added: “I think this issue has to be highlighted.”
An estimated 4,000 illegal homes, many owned by foreigners, have been built in the Axarquia region where mayor of Alcaucin José Manuel Martín Alba was arrested earlier this year and found to have 160,000 euros stashed under his bed.
In Chiclana, it is estimated that 30,000 illegal homes have been built, making it one of the worst black spots for illegal building in Andalucía.
The recent EU report, in particular, focussed on the serious problem in Marbella where up to 40 per cent of properties may be illegal.