It's easy, they told me, handing me the user-friendly forms. The LVT was set up, by the government, to be cheap, accessible and available to laypersons.
I own my flat but it is Leasehold. Flats are mostly Leasehold. To buy a Freehold house in London, you literally need to be a millionaire. I have a lease, similar to that of renters, with about 120 years left on it. The person who owns the structure of the building and the land it sits upon, is called the Freeholder. The Freeholder is responsible for the maintenance of the building and the common parts. I own my flat from the skim of the ceilings to the joists of the floorboards.
My Freeholder has had it in for me since I moved there. She wants my flat. I understand why. It's the best flat in the building. It has sole use of the garden, sole use of the parking space and huge rooms. Unlike many London flats of its size, it has not been chopped up, 'developed' I think is the euphemism, into smaller units.
This type of situation is only found in a couple of other countries which were colonized by the British. It stems from the feudal system. It's an anomaly in modern day Britain in which flats like mine, worth over half a million pounds (devaluing by the day!) do not really belong to the person that paid for it. I don't really own my flat.
So, after years of going to LEASE for advice, frustrated by a lack of information or even basic accounts from my Freeholder, I decide naively to confront the situation head on, to sort it out, for once and for all.
My Freeholder had recently appointed a Managing Agent. At first I was pleased, thinking, now the building will be managed and maintained. But it became quickly apparent that he had no intention of doing so. In a conversation with him, he agreed that it would be a good idea if I went to the LVT....
"then the Freeholder will better understand her obligations".
I filled in the forms. There are only two grounds for taking a freeholder to the LVT:
- unreasonable service charges
- appointment of a new manager
- There is a 3rd application form: to limit the ability of the landlord to charge the leaseholder for their costs in defending themselves at the LVT.
But I was out of my depth. I didn't really understand what I was doing, having no legal training. LEASE does not provide representation and I couldn't afford a solicitor or barrister. I went to the College of Law which gives trainee barristers the opportunity to represent you at the LVT.
The preliminary hearing went well, despite the fact that my College of Law barrister turned up 40 minutes late. I represented myself. The freeholder was there with the Managing Agent. He was representing her. I was surprised. They lied and said they hadn't received notice of the hearing from me. The chairwoman didn't seem to believe them. I made a mistake though. I refused mediation. I know the Freeholder well and knew that mediation would be a waste of time.
We set a date for the hearing in September 2007. The other side disclosed their papers to us only the day before the hearing. It was a huge bundle and impossible to read in time, especially as they had not sent me a copy, only my trainee barristers.
The tribunal has a presiding panel of 3 people: a barrister, a surveyor and a layperson. As soon as I walked into the tribunal it was very clear that their minds were already made up.
The Managing Agent based his entire case around personal issues. The problems were characterised as a sort of cat fight between two hysterical women, myself and the Freeholder. My trainee barristers attempted to stop the Managing Agent's personal accusations:
This is just hearsay, Mr Chairman.
Mr Chairman waved away their objections: I'm very interested in hearsay. You can learn a lot like that I find.
I sat there as I was personally ripped apart. My trainee barristers seemed nervous. I spoke for myself. After all, I knew the case, the building, better than anyone else there, including the Managing Agent and the Freeholder.
My proposed Managing Agent, a kind and experienced man who came and represented me for free, was humiliated.
I did my best but my heart was in my boots. Everything the Managing Agent said was believed and listened to. Nothing I said was.
I am not a conspiracy theorist type but for the first time in my life I felt that something very strange was going on. Almost on a masonic handshake level. It was like sitting alone in a private club where everybody else knew each other. It was hopeless.
8 weeks later I received the judgement. It was devastating. The only victory was that the Freeholder must provide accounts. (They could hardly rule otherwise seeing that this was an obligation of the lease.) The service charges were reasonable. The Managing Agent was fine and more experienced than the one I proposed. I was a bad girl. I was criticized in the document for "deliberately" spelling the Freeholders name wrongly. This in a document that spelt my name wrongly throughout. Basic facts in the judgement were wrong, for instance, the proportion of service charges that I paid. They clearly had not read any of my documentation. They had just read the Managing Agent's papers and believed, without criticism, every word that he said. Worse, they had not protected me from paying out for the Freeholder's costs. At first, I didn't understand what that meant. I was soon to find out.
The Managing Agent, crowing with victory, immediately sent me a letter demanding a large sum of money. I paid up, asking, pleading for the building to be managed properly in the future.
By January, the Managing Agent had sent me the accounts, a neccessary step in obtaining service charges from me. The accounts were just for my flat (1), based on my incomplete accounts presented to the LVT, and left out large sums of money that I had paid. These accounts were accompanied by yet another demand for a large sum of money. By return, or else. Almost every letter was phrased in a threatening way. I sent off check stubs and bank statements showing that I had paid more money than that which they claimed. The Managing Agent refused to accept this proof.
"I'm not dealing with anything that happened before I got here" he said. (Wrongly acting as if he were a new Freeholder).
Then, in February, he sent me a bill for almost £5,000 for his 'services' in going to the LVT, including almost £800 of photocopying charges. I now owed almost £10,000. Payable, of course, immediately, otherwise I would 'forfeit' my lease.
I knew I had to find a solicitor. The College of Law, having represented me in the most feeble and inadequate way, refused to help me any further. You cannot appeal the decision of the LVT, except on a point of law. I went through a list of 40 London solicitors on the LEASE website. Most of them represented Freeholders only. Why? Well, it's Freeholders who have the money. One young woman kindly gave me the lowdown, over the phone. She used to work for LEASE when she left law college.
"Yes, I gave out that advice to everyone that came in when I worked at LEASE. Go to the LVT. It's cheap and fair. Now, though, I am in the real world. I know it doesn't work like that. The LVT is now as intimidating and adversarial as any court room. I personally know barristers that rub their hands in glee when they know that they will be up against an unrepresented Leaseholder. "
I eventually found one Legal Aid solicitor, a young man, prepared to represent me. He admits he is learning, that he is not a specialist in this area of law. He is being paid £175, a flat rate, for all the time that he is spending on my case. A very different sum from the £5000 that the Managing Agent, who is not legally trained, is demanding for his half day at the tribunal.
All in all, I have received four letters this year threatening forfeiture of my lease. Threatening to make myself and my child homeless. We are still in negotiation with the Freeholder, who has now appointed solicitors, who also do not appear to be experts in this area of law, who also do not appear to have properly read the documentation. We have offered to go to mediation, they have refused. They have dropped the demand for LVT costs to a third, my proportion of the service charges, on the advice of these solicitors. The advice I have received from my solicitor and other solicitors is that my lease does not allow "in a clear and unambiguous way" as required by law, for LVT costs to be charged.
Other issues: despite my proportion of the buildings insurance being almost £800, the Freeholder refuses to allow me to claim on this insurance. The Freeholder has soaked two of my ceilings with her faulty washing machine, but refuses to repair them. They have not understood that the lease calls for the Freeholder to pay for services/repairs etc first and then charge the Leaseholder. In May this year, the Managing Agent entered my property without notifying me and took pictures. He refuses to apologize for this, saying I was not in residence at the time, therefore he has the right. (Decorators were present and had left the door open). Again, they have not provided accounts for the last financial year, due at the end of March '08. According to the LVT, no accounts, no service charges due.
I have written to my M.P. Glenda Jackson. She hasn't replied.
I don't own my flat, do I? Not really.
This past Saturday I went to the annual conference of the Campaign for the Abolition of Residential Leasehold (C.A.R.L).
I got there late, due to transport problems. I just caught the end of the presentation by the lady from LEASE. Suddenly I was in a roomful of people that were bandying around phrases like Section 20, Qualifying Long term agreements and certified or audited accounts,. Suddenly I wasn't alone. (You notice, up till now, I haven't even written about this situation on my blog. Frankly it is technical and possibly boring. Why am I doing it now? Because someone has got to speak up. Maybe people will google it, find this blog and learn from my experience?)
In the room, the anger and frustration were palpable. People were putting their hands up and saying stuff like
"I've been fighting my Freeholder for 20 years."
"I went to the LVT and they didn't read any of the paperwork. I appealed it at the Lands tribunal and finally got a partial victory. This took up 2 years of my life."
"I've lost my job fighting my case. My £17,000 bill has turned into £100,000 but I won't give in. "
"If I knew when I bought my leasehold property what I know now, I would never have believed it. I trusted the system. I thought there was justice in this country, now I know better."
My story was not an exception, it was the rule. One chair, Frances Silverman, at the LVT was named "Hanging Judge Jeffreys" so hostile was she to Leaseholders. LVT routinely did not examine properly the paperwork of Leaseholders, were sympathetic to Freeholders, were in cahoots with surveyors and Managing Agents. The two bodies that govern these professions, RICS and ARMA, were toothless and reluctant to act against their own members.
Most damning, Leaseholders risked, if they lost, their homes while Freeholders risked nothing. If Freeholders refused to abide by LVT judgements, there were no sanctions. Freeholders did not risk losing their homes. Freeholders who are, by definition, richer than Leaseholders, did not even risk financial sanctions. The LVT has no teeth. It cannot enforce it's judgements.
After the LEASE presentation, there was a panel of Leaseholders who have experience of the system. One lady has fought her case all the way to the Land Tribunal. She talked of the human cost involved, the stress, the anxiety, the unpaid time devoted to bringing a case, the amount of legal information that a Leaseholder has to assimilate in a very short period of time. She gave one piece of advice "Never, never agree to a paper hearing. They do not read the papers. Your only chance is if you attend."
I asked a question at the end:
" Why doesn't the government abolish Leasehold?"
The chair admitted with a rueful smile:
"There are very strong vested interests in keeping the system as it is".
Another man spoke up from the audience:
" This government(which promised to abolish Leasehold prior to coming to power) feels that it has done it's bit by bringing in Commonhold.(2) Unless there is a change of government, nothing else will happen. They have washed their hands of it."
In the pub afterwards one sad and tired Leaseholder who has been dealing with the Freshwater group for years, after explaining how Surveyors, Managing Agents, Accountants, ARMA and RICS were all in each others pockets stated:
They say the Duke of Westminster can walk from Sloane Square to Mayfair without stepping off his own land.
I am willing to pay any genuine bill. I'm a person of financial integrity. I have no debts. I live within my (rather slight) means. The situation I am in cannot be resolved even by paying this bill. It's ongoing, perpetual, a vendetta. In the two years since this Managing Agent took over the building, maintenance has not improved one iota. I am still the person who cleans the common parts, clips back the bushes at the front, lets in various contractors, sorts out the ongoing subsidence work, chases up insurance. Yet the maintenance costs have risen by several hundred percent, most of which are various fees for the Managing Agent and his cronies.
I would not recommend going to the LVT. If you have a bad Freeholder and no possibility of buying a share of Freehold then your only solution is to sell. This is what my solicitor told me this week. I cannot sell because the subsidence work is not finished, and also because of this ongoing dispute. I love my home and have worked hard on making it the ideal space to bring up my daughter.
Another website detailing one woman's fight: www.leasehold-outrage.com.
Telegraph story: my property nightmare.
(1) One of the reasons that my building has not been maintained, I believe, is that I am the only person paying service charges. There are 4 flats in all. 2 are owned by the freeholder (who rents them out). The other is owned by an absentee landlord who is greatly in debt. Proper accounts would show the debits and credits for the whole building, in my opinion.
(2) The Commonhold and Leasehold reform bill, introduced in 2001, purported to replace the Leasehold system. To quote CARL "Six years after commonhold was introduced, there are still only 14 new commonhold developments and less than a 100 commonhold flats have been registered. By contrast more than half a million leasehold flats have been built since Labour came to office. This government has overseen a bigger expansion in the Leasehold system than at any time since William the Conquerer introduced the system to England in the Middle Ages."