SPAIN’S highest judicial body, the Tribunal Constitucional, ruled last week that the legal process used to demolish Len and Helen Priors’ home in Vera, Almería was null and void.
Which is strange.
Because in January, 2008 when the dust settled (literally) on the pile of rubble their 600,000 euro home had become, the only explanation anyone in power could give was this: “We were only obeying the law”.
Junta officials, Vera council, Judge Jesús Rivera who issued the demolition order – all expressed sympathy, all were quick to blame somebody else; and all ended up repeating that same sentence, like a mantra: we were only obeying the law.
Which, as it turns out, they weren’t. At least, not according to the Tribunal Constitucional.
The ruling is not for the faint-hearted as it reveals the Kafkaesque administrative processes by which the Priors’ lives were shattered.
Here’s one of my favourite lines, referring to claims made by Vera council: “The document mentions a supposed notification sent to Mr Prior, but the address to which it was sent is not given. . .nor is there any signature to prove it was received by the addressee.”
The ‘supposed notification’ in question was not for a parking fine or an unpaid water bill – this was to inform the Priors they had 15 days grace before their home was bulldozed and, as the ruling shows, was the first they heard that any problem with their house existed.
Here’s another good one: “The Tribunal Constitucional has stressed in numerous resolutions the need to summon all those legitimately entitled to appear as defendants in cases which directly affect their right and interests.”
Well, thank God somebody is stressing it as the Junta and Vera council certainly didn’t consider it important: the ruling shows the entire matter was done and dusted before the Priors even got wind of what was in the offing.
So, what went wrong?
Spanish professor Victor Lapuente works at The Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden and has studied why certain European countries are more prone to corruption than others. He describes Spain as suffering “quality of government similar to authoritarian countries in the process of development” and identifies the politicisation of public institutions as the primary cause.
What puzzled everyone was how such a harsh decision had been allowed
He said: “In Spain, the political party which controls a local government can name a multitude of high-ranking officials and consultants. . . the entire decision-making process for public policy is in the hands of people who share a common goal: to win elections.”
In reference to the Junta de Andalucía he mentioned “instances of people who were politically-appointed being transformed into civil servants”.
In short, think Tammany Hall with sunshine and mountains and you’re not far off the mark.
I remember at the time of the demolition asking Luís Capparós, the Junta’s (then) housing delegate, whether he thought that, having obeyed the law, justice had been done. His reaction was to gape like a goldfish for a few seconds then decline to comment. It was clearly something he hadn’t considered.
What puzzled everyone at the time was how such a ridiculously harsh decision (and one that even the most pea-brained person must have realised would be prejudicial to Andalucia’s reputation) had been allowed to come to pass. It is possible Sr Lapuente has hit on the reason why.
When the prerequisite for holding a place of employment in local administration consists not in doing the job correctly, but in maintaining the goodwill of those who put you there, practically any numb-skulled legal order will be acted upon without thought or worry of the consequences. As the ruling in the case of the Priors shows, the legal paperwork containing their doom was happily shunted back and forth between the Junta,Vera council and the judge, but nobody ever thought to ask: “Hold on a second, are we sure about this?” They didn’t even bother to make sure the people whose home was at risk were aware of what was happening.
The word ‘corruption’ conjures images of cloak and dagger deals, of unmarked envelopes stuffed with cash and shadowy figures exchanging dossiers. But the fact that the local and regional government in Almería blithely allowed the demolition of a retired couple’s home through the sloppy application of the law represents corruption of a different, but equally pernicious kind.
To those unlucky enough to become embroiled in legal disputes with councils, the process can seem like fighting some vast mechanism dreamt up by Heath Robinson: unnecessarily complex, requiring an inordinate amount of people to operate and, once it has rumbled into life, almost impossible to stop.
Justice is supposed to be blind. But when it is permitted to become deaf and dumb as well, serious problems can and will arise.
Ask Len and Helen Prior.