Lawyers in the Dock

LAST UPDATED: 29 Apr, 2009 @ 11:16
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Lawyers in the Dock

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.

Discovered

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 case studies that truly shame the Spanish legal system

LYN AND PETER JOYCE retired to Spain in 2005 and used their life savings to build their dream home near Tolox.

They say they bought the land and designed the house with the full knowledge of their lawyers yet just four years later are saddled with a crippling fine and a property which will never be legal and will be impossible to sell. The Joyces are now paying the fine in monthly instalments of 600 euros.

“We were so scared they would put an embargo on our property, we just decided to pay,” said Lyn.

“We feel so victimised. All we wanted was to be law abiding citizens in Spain.”

The Joyce’s have since stopped working with their lawyers, with their dream in tatters they are now resigned to paying the fine any way they can.

“My husband says he wishes we had never even built the place,” said Lyn.

JEFF BRIGHTWELL got a nasty shock one morning when he spotted a tractor ploughing up his back garden.

Running over to ask the driver what he thought he was doing, he was told that the land was owned by a neighbour, who had bought it a few years earlier.

Despite having the deeds to the property dating back to the 1960s with clear boundaries for the land, his neighbour had managed to include the plot in his own escritura when there had been a reclassification of land in the area four years earlier.

It turned out that the neighbour – who was interestingly the treasurer at his local town hall – had managed to have his property re-registered, including the contested land, a day before Brightwell officially bought his property in the same notary.

Now, after a year of legal wrangling, he has been told that the catastral office are not going to change anything.

“It means I am probably going to have to go to court, which will cost thousands,” said Brightwell. “There has clearly been some skullduggery and it is amazing that the same notary gave out a new deed for two different properties on the same bit of land two days apart.”

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.”

Conned

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.

» A European size slap on the wrist
» OLIVE PRESS OPINION: We all have responsibilities, and few perhaps more than the legal profession

20 COMMENTS

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  1. The uncetainty as to the legality or not of their homes, is causing major worry for retired people, who have invested their whole future, into the Spanish economy, by retiring here and building their retirement homes.

    If houses have been granted illegal licenses, it should be people who have benefited by the illegalities, that pay any fines imposed by The Junta, to legalise these homes and not the innocent buyers.

    Spain has benefited greatly, from the money spent by the newcomers and will continue to do so, if they do not frighten them away.

    The extra money that is spent by the expat community, once they have settled here , is going a long way towards helping create Spanish jobs and improve the economy.

    Time to stop punishing the innocent and put their minds at rest.
    Dennis Lewis.

  2. It astonishes me how many stories we here about the poor old expatriate not being aware of any illegalities when they were purchasing their land or home. Whilst not having total confidence in the legal profession, to place the blame solely on them is unfair.

    The unpalatable truth is that the majority of expats know exactly what they are doing. They believe or at least have allowed themselves to be persuaded that in Spain one has to do things differently and that everybody does it this way. The planning regulations are quite clear in the letter if not totally clear in their enforcement.

    Pleading ignorance of the planning laws insults our intelligence.

  3. You don’t have to be astonished at all Fergus that’s why Margrete Auken and Michael Cashman visited several areas of Spain last year and submitted a report to the Petitions Committee of the EU – NO MEAN FEAT IN ITSELF- which I’m sure you are aware was accepted – and they still have to vote whether or not to stop further funding to Spain unless it puts its’ house in order, regarding the corruption,fraud,deceptions,bribery etc,etc that has been going on in the building and construcion industry within Spain involving Builders,Promoters,EstateAgents, Lawyers,Notaries and the failure of Police,Judges and Politicians to take any action when they have received complaints about these crimes taking place and of some taking bribes instead.
    So while it IS true that a handful of people DO avoid paying what they have to and take the easy way out and always will, it is is also true that the vast MAJORITY have been tricked and conned by these scheming Spanish wide-boys to part with their hard-earned cash even if YOU have been clever enough NOT TO! If that is the case show a little humility NOT chastisement at this time.

  4. Fergus, I do not know who your associates are but I like many living in Chiclana put our trust in the lawyers we paid well, the notaries who received a good fee a long with the state who received a big slice of tax. If you cant trust the system that overseas the buying and selling of homes the whole area will die. Any one who buys a home in Spain is taking a massive risk with their money as you just can not trust the process. I think the Spanish building industry is dead and buried!

  5. I hear these sob stories over and over again. In most cases the illegality is so flagrant that you have to laugh at the excuses.
    I have one case of a couple who bought a house, but the deeds only named the land – no building. Another case the “land ” turned out to be 11 parts of adjoining plots, and did not add up to the 30.000 m2 required.
    Yet another, a lawyer advised the buyers to build first and legalise after. As a result they have an apallingly built hidious blockhouse that leaks and will cost almost the same as the original building to legalise it, and make it habitable.
    In another case the main building was legal but a massive granny flat, a garage and the swimming pool were not.
    In all these cases the deeds told the truth and the buyers signed them despite the fact that they bore no relation to the truth. Perhaps the new economic climate will make people more carefull.

  6. Pedro, you are such a sympathetic person. Of course, there will be a few cases where the owners did not check documents adequately, but then again checking documents are what LAWYERS are hired for, and as we know, most of them in the case of the so called “illegal builds” are either useless, corrupt, or both.

    Quite simply Pedro, your country has a useless, corrupt and unprofessional planning and legal process for purchasing houses, and the EU agree! I refer you to the recent MEPs (Margaret Auken’s) findings on the matter and the fact that a vote was passed to take action on this.

    You surely must agree that your countries planning and
    legal processes for housing are a disgrace and that the few items you mention above are very isolated examples which any decent lawyer should have properly checked. How can a person with no knowledge of legal processes be expected to check reams of documents, and in another language?

    I just can’t wait for your reply about that particular matter, Pedro, indeed your posting is so ignorant of the realities in your own country, that I’m surprised you even made it.

  7. The irony here is that investment in and development of a countries infrastructure generally improves the wealth and opportunity available to it citizens and residents.

    Unfortunately Spain’s Political system has been so negligently corrupt in allowing all forms of abuses in all aspects of Spanish life that such development has not brought the country increased wealth, but rather started a downward spiral back to third world status.

  8. Fred, may I say firstly that YOUR comment makes absolute sense and I am not just saying this because it agrees with what I have written just above.Secondly from past experience of Sr.Pedro Santamarias comments, who ON THIS OCCASION but not always is using the third name of GRANT he talks crap and ALWAYS supports the Government ie. Zapatero/ line!For your information Sr.Santamaria or Grant, and I know we are NOT in Britain but we ARE or believed we were in a civilised country NOT a third or fourth world country.We British come from a country where you cannot buy a house illegally, where when you pay a lawyer/solicitor money to do work and find out about a property you intend to buy he does just that including ALL the necessary searches to ensure it is legal,that NO roads,airports,canals golf-courses etc are or have been or will be given permission by crooked Town Hall Mayors or Planners to be built and that will necessitate the demolition of your property.In other words unlike here in Spain he gets up off his backside and does what he is paid to do. So instead of the sarcastic comments about sob stories show a bit of humility.The PP and PSOE MEP’s were trying to talk Margrete Auken and Michael Cashman out of submitting the report up-to the last minute and when they realised they couldn’t persuade them they just abused them,so even your MP’s are arseholes!

  9. Arguing with a Spanish person is really a waste of time; they are the most obstinate and unforgiving people at times. In the Sur in English there was an article recently that suggested the expats were to blame for the ilegal builds in Spain because they “flashed the cash” and tempted the developers with “brown envelopes” and in turn started the cycle of corruption.

    Let me tell you, the buck stops with Spain, NOT the expats. Sure, the expats had a lot of money to spend, but the Spanish loved it and they relied on it for decades, and they took it willingly, and, most importantly, their LEGAL SYSTEM accepted it. if Spain wasn’t corrupt the lawyers, architects and other followers on would not have accepted the cash. Simple as that. Also, if the Spanish loved their environment and actually cared for their land, beaches and waters they would not have allowed the massive over-building that we now have.

    I think that thoroughly oblisterates Pedro’s argument.

  10. Well, I’m writing this from the UK having been interested in buying a property in Andalucia. I can only comment from an outsiders point of view. It strikes me that the system is just basically corrupt. I don’t wish to be mean to the Spanish but they seem quite prepared to take people’s money and supply incorrect information. Surely this is a bit like shooting yourself in the foot. The downturn in the Spanish economy is due to a large extent in the demise of the contruction industry and the fact that these stories abound is NOT going to make peole look for homes in Spain.

    I would suggest the the Spanish get their house in order. These stories do circulate on the Internet and do nothing for the Spanish property image which is now pretty tarnished to say the least.

  11. Can I just say, I agree, with all that is said about the Spanish legal system, it SUCKS, !!! I have nothing good to say about it, the Spanish don’t give a fig about ex pats or any one else for that matter, who have purchased property in Spain, is is such a currupt system, and they are laughing all the way to the bank, Once I sell my property in Spain, and I will sell, even if I have to just clear the mortgage, I WILL NEVER NEVER SET FOOT IN SPAIN AGAIN.

  12. english…..thank you for stopping napoleon and his french thugs …….but stay out! too many of you here…… you add nothing to this society….. go to ireland or scotland or india … oh wait, they don’t want you there either…

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