Image via WikipediaImagine you are renting a house in France and a man comes banging aggressively on your door one morning. What would you do? Call the gendarmes? All right, stop laughing...really, what would you do?
A couple renting a house for the summer had just this experience and found themselves opening the door to a bum bailiff who announced that he had come to value the contents of the house to satisfy an unpaid debt! They explained that they were not the owners, but this did not satisfy him and he shouted and bawled a great deal before announcing that if they did not let him in he would return with the gendarmes...you see, they are available sometimes, to the right people.
They telephoned the owner, who is living abroad, who duly contacted his keyholder, only to discover that his keyholder had passed on her duties to someone else...a private arrangement...and had been somewhat selective in forwarding the post, so that the debt at the origin of the morning call - a case lost in court - had not been notified to him. He telephoned the bum bailiff's HQ straightaway, and the whole matter was settled, at least as far as his tenants were concerned.
I know the owner....I have been living here a long time....and I can imagine that this must have been the last straw in an affair going back a very long time.
Years ago, he had bought a run down cottage, this being the era when the French thought it hilarious that foreigners would buy these heaps of stones at the exorbitant prices they were demanding. When the heaps of stones turned into little gems, they were laughing on the other side of their faces, but this is by the by. Run down this cottage might have been, but it had water, electricity and mains drainage, all these noted in the acte de vente - the deeds.
He made a nice job of it and let it as a holiday cottage until the Saturday mucking out run became too much for him....as he explained, people fell into categories - the very nice who polished the furniture, the very nice who didn't, the nice ordinary holidaymaker, the odd professional complainer and the total filthpacket. When the last category started to become more than a rare occurrence, he stopped letting. It was just too much strain, running round in the short time between the late departure and the next arrivals trying to find parts to mend the loo or replacing shower fittings that had been wrenched from the wall, let alone the time that he went to change the beds only to find a naked female occupant still ensconced.
He put the cottage up for sale and found a buyer. The acte de vente was duly signed and money changed hands. However, this was not the end of the story. Months after the purchase the buyer called him and asked him where the drains ran, so he went over and showed the guy the run of drains and the manhole cover in the road, just as the guy who sold him the place had done. Some weeks later, he received a letter from his buyer's lawyer, claiming that he had deliberately sold his buyer a pup, in that the cottage was not on the mains, the manhole cover being an access to the storm drains which led directly to the river!
On enquiry at the local mairie, it appeared that half the village was on this inventive version of mains drainage, but that was no comfort to him. How did he stand legally? He went to an avocat with both actes de vente and the letter he had received from the buyer's lawyer and his avocat found an interesting feature. When he bought the cottage, the vendor had stated that it was on the mains. When he sold it, the notaire had changed the wording of the clause with the effect that he, as vendor, took full responsibility for the existence of mains drainage. He had not thought anything about it as it was read over to him, because he genuinely thought it was on the mains and, anyway, the original owner had vouched for it in the first place. He asked his avocat for advice and got the usual legal humming and haaing.
'Well, let's see what they want and then we'll think about it.'
His avocat wrote to the buyer's avocat and, a year later, having received no reply, sent the papers back with a suggestion to get back in touch if the question ever surfaced again.
Well, it didn't surface for three years.
He was at home, having returned from foreign climes, when there was a knock at the door. It was a bailiff, who informed him that he had been taken to court by his purchaser and, in his absence and unrepresented, had been found liable for the cost of installing a septic tank to deal with the sanitation problem at the cottage. One always has to be thankful to the late Frankie Howerd in these circumstances, as nothing better sums up the situation as to say that his flabber had never been so ghasted. Further perusal of of the proffered document revealed that all this had happened three years' earlier.....just after his own lawyer had given up on hearing from the opposition. He had not been in France at the time, but a neighbour had been collecting and passing on his post and there had been absolutely nothing, either from his purchaser's lawyer or from the court in relation to this case. In the meantime, he had been back in France for over eighteen months and this was the first he knew of any problem.
Telling the bailiff what he could do with himself, he contacted his lawyer to ask firstly how was it that he could be taken to court without receiving a summons and secondly, to tell him to appeal the judgement. There was no answer to the first request, but a demand for 660 euros to deal with the second. He paid it and left his lawyer to get on with it while he went off to visit the family, being sure to give his e mail address to avoid difficulties with the post. Eventually, his lawyer e mailed him to say that since the case was three years' old, the possibility of appeal was time barred. Surprised that this advice had cost him 660 euros when one would think that an experienced lawyer would have some idea of how long it can be before an appeal is barred, he replied, asking his lawyer to investigate the possibility of overturning the judgement on procedural grounds. He was still awaiting a reply to this request several months later when the bombshell of the second knock on the door hit him. He paid up, to avoid disturbance to his tenants, but he can't have been happy.
Several things come to mind.
First, why didn't the buyer, once he was aware of the problem, get in touch and try to sort it out face to face? If that hadn't worked, then by all means go to law, but it seems needlessly aggressive to me.
Then, where was this 'security of purchase' so often touted by notaires? In all their publicity, they tell you that when you buy, they cover all the problems and have an insurance scheme to pay compensation if any hitch should occur. Well, in this case, it was the same local notaire who covered both sales, so you would think that some compensation was due, wouldn't you? If you would, then you haven't lived in France very long. According to the second 'acte de vente' the client took full responsibility....that lets out the notaire who drew up the document.
More interestingly, why had the notaire changed the clause? Could it be that the question of sewage disposal had been drawn to the notaire's attention and that this change of clause would let the notaire off the hook for not checking it in the first place?
How was it possible for a court to proceed without one of the parties having been informed? Our chap received nothing and signed nothing but the court proceeded willynilly to hear the case and come to a conclusion. It has to be said that the administration of the court in question has always had a dubious reputation in its locality. I know of a case where a young man was accused of driving while over the limit. Considering that he had overshot his turning when returning from the discotheque at four in the morning and, on turning round had overtaken a gendarmerie van before driving into the ditch and accordingly being breathalysed, it was probably unwise of him to advance in his defence that the gendarmerie had driven him off the road. It was probably also tactless to offer the officers a drink when they delivered him to his parents' house. What amazes me is that he managed to find any gendarmes out after dark...they must have had a nightlight in the van. He was duly hauled up in court and had several points deducted from his licence. Not surprisingly, this would have had the effect of banning him from driving, given his previous activities behind the wheel, so his father went to the local fixer and put himself in his hands. After due consultation with the officers of the court, a price was arrived at and the points were never deducted from the licence. I've heard a lot more, but this is the only case I know about from the horse's mouth...oh, except the case where a medical certificate was lifted from a dossier before it went to the judges. Luckily, this is one of the courts due to be abolished under the reorganisation proposals brought about by Rachid Dati before Sarkozy sacked her, and you should just hear the great and the good of the area kicking up.....they'll have a damn hard job getting the court in the departmental capital to oblige them the way this one does.
Why, having obtained judgement, did the buyer wait three years before enforcing it? Given the absence of notice, was it to ensure that there could not be an appeal?
What was the lawyer doing to earn his money? Clearly, not a lot.
There is something decidedly whiffy about the whole business, and it's not just the drains.
The U.K.'s legal system, though creaky in parts, is open and impartial. In your own best interests, don't assume that the French system is likewise, or you risk ending up with a knock at the door and a nasty surprise.