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About me

Hi, I’m James, for the past 10 years I have been director of foreign operations and legal representative for an investment company operating in The Balkans, Turkey, Italy and the UK.

Over the years I have sought and obtained a wide range of legal advice, and subsequently undertaken a profusion of legal and bureaucratic procedures in various countries on behalf of different companies. I have spent countless hours in the offices of foreign municipal officials, government ministers, courts and of course lawyers.

My job has been to spend time in a country in order to understand the rules and mechanisms of that particular jurisdiction, seek out good professions and create the necessary local contacts. I then oversee and take formal responsibility for all the legal, bureaucratic and operational processes for the businesses that I represent and manage.

I now work with an Italian law chamber as non-lawyer consultant for foreign clients. My experience has given me a unique insight into the client’s position and I have a very personal connection with their situation.

In this blog I will uncover some of the lesser known elements of Italian law and recount some of my on-the-ground experiences in various foreign bureaucratic and legal systems, including a selection of common issues encountered by foreigners. The intention is to provide a read-worthy combination of general insight, curiosity or just plain amusement.

Feel free to learn something from my experiences, but remember that this blog is not intended as, nor does it constitute legal or professional advice. Please read the disclaimer at the bottom of this page for more information.

Is it time to consult a lawyer in Italy?

shutterstock_121835134 copy 2The short answer, without the following lengthy rationale, is probably. I am aiming this post primarily at the British for reasons I will explain, but it has relevance to other Northern Europeans and also Americans.

If you have what appears to be just a small issue, situation or doubt, you should run it by a lawyer to be sure. But don’t worry, you won’t have any trouble finding one, Italy has more than any other European country… a lot more!

Being British I fully understand the natural inclination to avoid using lawyers wherever possible, it is the notion of eye watering hourly fees clocking up as they carry out their dark art behind closed doors before presenting a bill that looks more like the list price of a new Ford Fiesta. The only consolation is that the standards are high and British society is such that most people have little need for a lawyer in ordinary life. However, ‘when in Rome’ you need to re-adjust your mindset somewhat, as firstly, lawyers’ fees are generally lower than the UK and secondly, the chances are that you do need their advice!

To properly understand the difference you must consider that the bureaucratic structure of everyday life in Britain is very different to many of our continental cousins. For example, try telling someone from mainland Europe that in Britain you drive a car without carrying your license, vehicle documents or insurance certificate (to them that would mean immediate arrest and your car impounded) or that you don’t carry any form of ID in public at all times, they will struggle to see how order is maintained with such Bohemian governance. And the suggestion of doing anything vaguely important without using a Notary would leave them perplexed as to how that is even possible, and in any event would surely be rendered invalid in some future dispute.

Car cartoon copyBecause the British have much less formal bureaucratic involvement in everyday life, rarely requiring intermediaries, its citizens are far more reliant and trusting of the basic administrative processes, even if they are not aware it. Most affairs can be conducted at no charge by simply filling in a form and posting it to the appropriate authority, and even then they will quietly grumble if is not a ‘Freepost’ envelope!

For example, to sell your car you simply fill in the name and address of the person buying it on the original car registration document (you don’t even need a separate form) sign it and send it off to the DVLA. The buyer does the same with their half. It is a 5-minute job from the comfort of your own home, with no charge beyond the postage.

However, the next time you complain at having to use your own envelope and pay for a second class stamp, spare a thought for those in Italy, where until 2006 the process required a public Notary, and even now with various administrative improvements you will still need to undertake a procedure involving a visit in person to the Municipal PRA or Motorizazzione offices, and payment of hefty fees. Providing that both the buyer and seller are able to set aside a working day and arrange to attend the offices together with all the correct ID’s, taxes and paperwork, then it can be done in one visit, but don’t bank on it. The fee varies depending upon the Municipality and the car’s power, but for an average family car it will be in excess of €500. If both parties cannot attend together then the absent party must get their form and signature notarized, costing several hundred euros more.

Regulatory guidelines cartoon copyThe contrast of these two processes in terms of time, hassle and cost couldn’t be greater, and it is by no means a unique example. The result is a strong cultural difference in approach and attitude towards central administration. An Italian won’t disagree that the former sounds much simpler and more efficient, however, they will likely have a number issues to contest, for example “… what if the document gets lost in the post? What if the DVLA don’t register the name change properly? What if the person buying the car does something wrong on their form? What if they try to trick me somehow? What if I get stopped by the police before I have the new documents? ” Your answers to these questions will not allay an Italian’s reservations.

For this reason, whilst the Italian process is laborious, time consuming and expensive, it is somehow accepted as a necessary trial in order to earn the peace of mind that comes with having undergone, and survived, the regulatory process.

This leads back to my original point, all too often we are approached by British and Americans who have arrived at the stage that they feel appropriate to consult a lawyer, unfortunately they are surprised to learn that the situation is a bit more serious than they expected, as contrary to the belief that things were being quietly dealt with in the background, problems were in fact propagating, usually unwittingly exacerbated by some action or inaction on their part. An Italian would not fall into this trap, they are acutely aware of potential hazards well in advance, they neither trust nor rely upon due process and don’t expect anything to go as planned, and that’s assuming there was even a plan in the first place! In this sense, Italians are much sharper leaving us British and Americans looking somewhat naive and having way too much faith that everything will be taken care of by the appropriate process or authority.

As a foreigner you have to be brutally honest with yourself and your fellow confidantes. Your well meaning ex-pat friend may have lived a few years in the country and can now competently handle a visit to the post office, impress you with cordial conversation with the owners of the local coffee bar and quietly scoff at the ‘ignorati’ who drink cappuccino after a meal, but they will never truly be able to think and act like a native.

The underpinning principles of how things work in different countries is so tied in with their history, culture and environment that you will never fully comprehend it using your own principles and logic. To address a problem with what you, or others of similar mindset, think to be the right approach is fraught with danger and the best solution is to take advice early from someone who really understands what is, or might be going on, and how best to tackle it.

Litigation in Italy – how long does it really take?

ClockWhenever assessing a case for a client, despite my many years experience in foreign legal jurisdictions, I still feel somewhat apprehensive when we arrive at the inevitable question ‘How long will it take? The reply “Potentially three to four years” still doesn’t roll off my tongue as it does my Italian colleague; she has no trouble with it.

The statistics tell you that, with all the appeals, a civil dispute in Italy can take up to eight years to settle, which is almost four times the OECD average. Enforcing a contract in Italy takes on average around 3 years compared to little over one year in the UK. Of course some cases do not take so long, but you can rarely predict with any certainty.

What are the reasons?

Some of the causes are well known and subject to regular debate.

  • Italy is one of the most litigious countries in Europe and has more lawyers than other any EU country.
  • Whilst the legal process is considered to be thorough (there are at least 4 or 5 court hearings for each case) the courts cannot cope, and there is currently a backlog of several million cases to be heard.
  • The system is somewhat inefficient and very politicised.
  • Judges have a great deal of power and control over their jurisdiction and how they manage cases.

Are things changing?

courtImprovements are slowly being made, such as the introduction of online submission for court documentation, aimed at reducing the ubiquitous long queues of lawyers ever-present in the courts waiting to simply submit documentation. This created a role for ‘professional queuers’ who, for a fee, keep your place in line, allowing you to return a few hours later, after having presumably got on with something more productive. There are also new measures being introduced to dramatically reduce the time required to conclude a divorce.

However, it will take a much greater shift in regulation and culture before we see any palpable improvements to the majority of decision times.

Addressing this problem isn’t a case of attempting to homogenise cultures in the name of global efficiency, at the expense of a country’s culture and identity. It causes real harm to the economy, and from my perspective working with international investors; the main problem is that such circumstances (not unique to Italy) act as deterrent to investment.

  • It creates a degree of uncertainty with regard to the practical enforceability of contracts.
  • Businesses become burdened by recovering debts that may take many years.
  • The slow pace of banks recouping defaulted loans keeps the cost of credit higher.
  • Companies may be reluctant to employ staff because of the time required to settle labour disputes in court.
  • Businesses don’t expand because it is safer to work with existing trusted suppliers, as a contractual dispute with a new partner may take years to settle.

It is hard to say whether the everyday Italian has gradually adapted his/her way of life to accommodate this situation, or if in fact it is the very underlying culture that created it in the first place. Either way most people want to see change, but as with any entrenched bureaucratic system, it will not be ‘streamlined’ overnight.

Can anything be done to speed cases up?

hourglass 2It is no revelation to say that the system can be used, some might say abused, for those who have the knowledge, time and money to spin cases out. Whether you consider this to be a good or bad thing depends which side of the action you are on!

However, doing so does come with risk as exposure to costs escalates, but it is sometimes a reality that the mere prospect of several years of litigation is sufficient to deter some people, especially foreigners without good legal advice.

There are a few things that can be done to help the situation:

  • First of all try to negotiate an out of court settlement, and be realistic about assessing the value of ‘x’ amount now versus the potential of receiving ‘y’ sometime in the future.
  • Be open to a making or receiving a settlement during the case. The judge will be more than happy to facilitate a solution to prevent further court hearings, and may even become frustrated with one party who refuses to accept a fair offer.
  • If you do go to court, present a very strong and thorough case from the outset with the intention of cutting off as many avenues as possible that may be used to frustrate and prolong the process. There are enough grey areas in life without creating your own. Keep on top of this throughout.
  • The smaller courts usually have shorter waiting times than the major cities.
  • In certain situations, depending upon the circumstances, you can request a fast track process that means the case will be heard within a several months. Although don’t get too excited, not may cases fall into this category!

In conclusion, if you have followed my other blogs you will notice a theme of avoiding problems in the first place. Taking a small amount of advice early from a lawyer or consultant experienced in international affairs before you commit to agreements can save you a lot of trouble in the future. Many times we deal with contractual disputes based on circumstances and agreements that had we been consulted, we would have strongly advised against in the first instance.

If it is too late for that and you have exhausted all alternatives, in Italy you can generally forget the notion that a ‘strongly worded’ legal letter will bring about fear and submission – it won’t, nor will merely threatening to sue someone, they will both be regarded as empty gestures. The consolation is that lawyers’ fees in Italy are usually quite a bit lower than comparable countries (especially the UK) and the sooner you start, the sooner it will be done. I am often surprised how much time people spend pondering the idea before actually taking action.

Setting up a company in a foreign country

company plaque for blog copyPeople often ask my advice about setting up a company in different countries. The first thing I always ask is “what do you want it for?” It might sound obvious, but you shouldn’t just assume it will always best suit your needs.

In many cases I find that, instead of the more traditional sense of starting a business to trade in a particular region, the purpose is to create an umbrella vehicle for a variety of activities.

Alternative uses for a company

A legal entity can be useful in order to consolidate and formalise your affairs in a particular place, for example as an investment vehicle, to purchase and own assets, to act as a holding company for a business in another country, or for legitimate tax benefits. I have also often seen individuals set up a simple company in order to purchase a house or apartment in countries or regions where foreigners are prohibited from owning land or property. However, I don’t generally recommend this and the authorities try to deter such ‘shell companies.’

In my experience, holding assets in a personal name wherever possible is preferable and I would generally only advise setting up a company for the purpose of trading, attracting and holding investment or succession planning.

The process, cost and regulations are very different in each country; however, there are some general guidelines and implications to be aware of in bureaucratic countries.

Hidden costs and considerations

If you do decide to set up a company to manage your affairs without the intention of maintaining a constant presence, make sure you are aware of the hidden costs in doing so. An accountant isn’t the right person to initially ask as they will tell you it’s a great idea due to the set-up fees and monthly income you will provide for them, especially if you don’t intend trading as this makes it very low workload.

City skyline for blog copyIn more bureaucratic countries a physical presence of the executive director or legal representative will be required for on-going administrative procedures, and there will be a series of regular municipal and state taxes to pay that I assure you no-one will accurately forecast at the outset. All your affairs must be kept up to date as some Municipalities have the power to block your company bank account and commandeer its contents without going to court, and if this happens expect several months before you can get it operational again.

You might even find that the rules change significantly en-route. For example in Turkey a law was introduced necessitating that a Turkish registered company with foreign directors must appoint a Turkish citizen as director, and remember this kind of rule is usually applied retrospectively (i.e. to all businesses and not just those incorporated from that date on) so you could find yourself operating unlawfully through no fault of your own, and left with a rather difficult or undesirable remedy.

The annual accounting cost must be considered along with that of a registered office and in some cases it will, at least in appearance, need to be an active place of work. In some countries you will find plentiful companies offering this service, but in others it is much more difficult. Don’t assume you will be able to manage everything with online banking from your home country, most banks offer this service to varying extents, however, the regulations on banking procedure vary and you may need to personally present all original documents before a transaction can take place. In addition, be sure that you have someone you can trust to periodically look after your interests in your absence, and as I have covered in previous blogs, be careful what powers you entrust.

A final consideration is the potential cost of closing the company as it can be significant, and take up to 12 months. In some countries you need to appoint a liquidator and there is no provision to simply strike a dormant company off the register, as you can in the UK for example.

It’s one thing to know, it’s another to understand

With good advice and on-going guidance, carrying out business in a foreign country can be a relatively trouble-free experience, however, it can also be fraught with problems if done incorrectly.

Professional advice will furnish you with certain information, however, always try to ask yourself if you really understand it and what may lie behind these facts.
lawyers blog
I accept this is easier said than done for someone with little experience, and inevitably there will be elements completely outside your sphere of understanding, but the more aware you are, the better placed you are to foresee and avert problems. I have repeatedly seen people get into trouble over seemingly obvious issues that in certain situations can get easily overlooked, especially if taken at face value.

What are you really agreeing to?

The reality of dealing in foreign countries means that you won’t understand everything (or sometimes anything!) that is going on in real time. With the thermometer topping 38 degrees (even hotter in the Notary office) and after a 2-hour wait it’s suddenly your turn and you will be handed a flurry of documents from all directions and expected to summarily sign each one in order to progress to the next office before it closes for lunch (and it’s on the other side of town!) There is little you can do to prepare for this experience but always have a good interpreter who has experience and regular involvement in these processes and don’t be afraid to ask questions; in these situations there really is no such thing as a stupid question.

Exactly what are you conceding?

It is common practice to give Power of Attorney to a lawyer or accountant to act on your behalf when you are not present, however, always create a very specific document allowing only the required actions. It may be more costly this way but at least you retain some control. Never concede a wide-ranging Power of Attorney unless you absolutely have to, and even then, only to someone who would give you a kidney. There can sometimes be a rather relaxed attitude by some professionals towards you handing over your legal rights to them, but that doesn’t mean you should also treat it so lightly.

The rules for companies can be different, for example in Italy and Montenegro amongst others, a legal representative of a company has the power to do virtually anything without seeking prior approval, so make sure you know exactly what authority you are assigning.

Who really owns this property you are buying?

Make absolutely certain that the person or company you are buying from has the legal right to transfer it. On the surface all might seem fine but I have seen some large-scale villa and apartment developments with a very complex and tenuous relationship between the marketing & sales company (with whom the contracts were signed and deposits paid) and the actual owner of the land & property. Get a lawyer to check the land registry and do some due diligence on the company. Don’t take anything for granted, a fancy sales office and impressive computer generated imagery don’t mean a thing!

If for some reason you are not able to be the registered owner of the property, even temporarily, be very wary of who you empower to hold the asset in escrow. I have seen many people do this in countries or regions where foreigners are not permitted to own property, some resulting in situations where the agent (in some cases a lawyer) demands an absurd sum when you decide to sell. Not all agents are bound by high legal standards, so check if they are licenced by a government authority and what protection, if any, you have.

You are only as good as the people you hire

Never underestimate that in situations of unfamiliar language and law, you are completely beholden to the skill and integrity of the person advising you, so you must involve yourself with good professionals who are experts in their local jurisdiction, will take ownership of the whole process and always advise in your best interest.

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Keep records and expectations realistic

In all your dealings try to confirm all agreements and communications on email, I am acutely aware that in some countries this is most certainly not the modus operandi, as deals are done face to face or over the telephone, so don’t expect circulated minutes after each meeting, but at least try to keep a record of the essentials. It is not just useful in the event of potential dispute, but it will also create a better working relationship as it reduces misunderstandings, as the truth is that most people won’t recall exactly what might have been said or agreed 18 months prior.

Finally, regardless of what notional advice you might receive from a hungry-for-work lawyer, there is only so much help the law can afford you, for example there is no merit in winning a case against a company or individual with no money, or where the cost and effort of pursuing a case outweighs the return. Therefore you always have to exercise some discretion with whom you do business, carry out due diligence and ultimately be realistic about your potential risk exposure.

International contracts – where is the governing law?

courtroomSpecifying an exclusive governing law and jurisdiction for international contracts is a relatively straightforward issue for a lawyer. It will depend on a number of factors such as the operating location, primary activities and assets of the respective parties and potentially the delivery location. The contracting parties may agree to select a separate country for the applicable law and method of dispute resolution.

So what can go wrong?

There is a legitimate basis where, regardless of any exclusive agreement to the contrary, a party can request to have a dispute heard in a court in their own country. This can be done if they prove there is requirement for urgent intervention.

I have been told that this situation will be mitigated in principle by stipulating arbitration as the exclusive method of dispute resolution; therefore keeping the process away from the courts. However, if one party is determined to pursue a particular course of action, in reality there is nothing you can do to stop them.

I was involved in a situation where a party chose this option instead of following the contractually agreed governing law and arbitration, whilst there are legitimate reasons for doing so as stated above, in my opinion this action was taken as they considered that selecting a court from their own town provided them with some advantage. In many cases, local judges have a lot of power within their jurisdiction, and if they decide they have the right to hear the case, they will do so regardless of your objections, however legitimate.

There can be inherent advantages for the other party in taking such action:

  • It will be in their language.
  • They will have better knowledge of the legal processes – the rules of which can vary from region to region.
  • They may have access to key people within the system and maybe privy to information that you are not.
  • In some instances the judgement may, how shall I say, give the balance of probability in their favour.

hammerThere is little you can do other than to proceed as required, and make your appeal at the appropriate stage. Unfortunately the initial appeal will likely be heard in the same jurisdiction, which might not help you a great deal. You need to arrive at the point where you can take your appeal away from the other party’s comfort zone, ideally back to the original contractual agreement, however, this takes time and money.

“Possession is nine tenth’s……”

A good way for you to protect yourself from such situations is to have a more tangible method of restitution in place that can be managed outside of court. This commonly takes the form of a performance guarantee and structuring the payment schedule to include a 10% holdback pending satisfactory handover and fulfilment of the contract.

A performance guarantee is an irrevocable obligation of a bank to pay agreed compensation in event that the contractual obligations of the seller are not fulfilled. Unless explicitly ordered by a court otherwise, it is the discretion of the bank whether to release this money and you can present your case directly to them. You can of course take action against the bank if they decide not to pay, but in my experience reputable international banks are much more objective about fulfilling their obligations, as in the end it is not their money or their dispute.

And what about the 10% holdback? What if the aforementioned court action rules for payment of this? The reality is that the only way for the other party to forcibly retrieve the money is to come to your country and enforce it through your legal system, and if the whole judgement came about through rather questionable favourable local circumstances and procedures, then balance is now back in your favour.

This situation is not common, but it is always worth implementing a variety of just means to mitigate the effects of any potential problems.

The public administration office – Who’s notarising the Notaries?

notaryWhen I was about 7 years old my father gave me an extensive selection of obsolete company stationary from his business. For weeks after that, every piece of paper I could get my hands on was covered in date stamps, signatures and company seals, each with carbon copy, receipt slip all stapled together and filed into separate envelopes with a wax seal, in turn stored in a large box file….. for what purpose? Absolutely none, it gave me a something to do and I felt important. Well, I think you can see where I am going with this…

So I am British, and along with our common law cousins (USA excepted!) the whole notion is somewhat alien and I regularly find myself in conversations asking “…so explain to me again why you really need Notaries?” and whilst I never entirely understand the answer, I do of course recognise that in some countries they provide independent authentication of documentation, contractual agreements and in some cases expert advice. However, in other countries it has become somewhat of a self-serving mechanism whose rules appear as little more than to justify and perpetuate its own existence.

For example, in Istanbul one of the rudimentary documents you need for carrying out business is a notarised copy of your signature. You get this by having the photo page of your passport translated, showing it to the notary and signing an A4 piece of paper 3 times. They stamp this piece of paper declaring that the signature is the same as the one on your passport (you might then argue that the passport was the best proof of signature in the first place, but let’s not go there).

In addition, some Notaries put a 12 month expiration date on this document, great news for the guy who changes his signature every year, but for the rest of us it is just something else to forget until one day, 366 days later, when it throws your whole plans awry.

Worse than that, last year I was in a Notary Public to carry out some routine business and presented my signature document, valid, stamped and authorised from a Notary Public not 500 metres away. I was subsequently told that it was not admissible as it had been notarised by a different Notary Public!!?? …I hear you ask “Well what’s the point in notarising it in the first place?” I’m afraid I couldn’t answer that that question then, and I cannot answer it now, all I know is that, incredulity suitably suppressed, I just sat patiently whilst they produced another one and continued with my business.

Maybe we need another notary to notarise the work of notaries…. but then who would notarise them? It’s a bit like the mathematician’s conundrum of infinity, no doubt there is a solution involving waiting, fees and lots more paper!

Time is relative

The perception of time has been a topic of philosophical and scientific debate for generations. The Theories of Relativity have provided convincing evidence as to whether there is any absolute measure of time.

timeThe theory states that:

“Measurements depend on the motions of the observer and the observed, and that space and time are relative, rather than absolute concepts. Although they may disagree, every observer’s measurement is equally valid”

It won’t really help you trying to comprehend how the norms of certain countries perpetuate a tendency to appear somewhat disorganised, inefficient or in your opinion, even a little lazy. The key to mentally reconciling certain cross-border dealings is to simply understand and acknowledge the law of relativity.

To put it simply:

Your interpretation of when something will be done, based upon what you are explicitly told, will never be the same as that of the person telling you.

Below is some pretty accurate data that I have compiled over the years for one country in particular. It’s no ‘e=mc2’ but in some situations, no less valid.

“I will do it immediately” = 1 week
“I will do it tonight” = 2 weeks
“It will take a few weeks” = 6 months
“It may take 6 months” = 5 years
“We will start it next year” = never

Of course, the principle of relativity is different in every part of the world, only experience will teach you which formula to apply. So unless you have a suitably adapted DeLorean (or work in Switzerland) ignore this rule at your peril!

Traduttore – Traditore!

A rather dramatic saying in true Italian style that means Translator – Traitor! Whilst it is intended more so in a literary sense, there is some relevance to working in foreign countries.

I recently read on a popular UK TV property website where they recommend foreign buyers to use a local lawyer and utilise a translator, rather than use an international or Anglo/Italian firm. In principle I am inclined to agree as it is more advantageous to choose the most suitable lawyer for your particular situation, and not primarily because they speak English. However, having done a lot of work using translators I would add a word of caution.

translatorFirstly, not all translators are equal, language is a complex and varied mode of communication and we have all seen the hilarious consequences of some literal translations. It is therefore vital that you find someone who can convey all the nuance as well as the content between you. On a number of occasions I have found myself ardently recounting a very important and detailed scenario with, what I considered useful accompanying hand gestures, only to subsequently witness the translator make the briefest of aloof sentences followed by silence and looks of mutual indifference. I am left wondering did he really convey everything I said in such succinct fashion? or just say ‘no idea what this idiot’s talking about’

Secondly, their job is not to fully understand your situation, it is simply to recount what each person says, and you must be aware that the local lawyer, whilst knowing the rules and norms of their jurisdiction inside out, will not likely be aware of your perception and expectations. They will understandably therefore structure and convey the information in a manner befitting their own conventions, and this can lead to some misunderstandings. For example, from knowledge of your own country norms, you may feel they are doing something unnecessary, or conversely not doing something they should be.

Don’t expect a fully structured walkthrough on every point and every potential eventuality. There can be somewhat of an attitude of ‘don’t get wet before it rains’ so if you are accustomed to a particular way of approaching problems, or don’t like surprises, then prepare in advance a list of questions that you need to satisfy your own concerns, they might not even be relevant to the law of that country, but it will help put your mind at rest and help prevent potential misunderstanding.

Owning an apartment in Italy

There are any number of property websites providing advice and information on the general issues involved with buying and owning a property in Italy. However, my intention is to uncover some lesser-known elements of property ownership. Whilst the chances of encountering these situations may be slim, being in possession of as many facts as possible allows you to mitigate, if not completely eliminate, the risks.

One such rule falls under the Civil Code of ‘Responsabilita’ Solidale’. In simple terms this means that in situations of joint liability, such as maintenance of a communal apartment building where the management company is unable to pay, a creditor can request payment from all the members. If some do not pay their share, the remaining members can be forced to make up the difference, and in extreme circumstances, i.e. no one else has any money, this could mean just you!

Alternative methods of debt restitution are increasingly being pursued and enforced, however, it is still possible to encounter this principle.

Ways to protect yourself are:

  • If possible, before purchasing an apartment, check the financial health of the building management company – in my experience, most are not in good shape!
  • If you are already an owner, make sure that all contracts for work carried out on the building contain a clause specifically stating that each individual is liable only for his/her own respective share of the debt.
  • Lastly, whilst I can’t advocate the efficacy, some people like to adopt the old fashioned method of self preservation by simply not having too much spare cash in the bank. Although most of us don’t have that problem!

Before taking legal action

legal actionWhen faced with the prospect of instigating or defending legal action, you must be very objective and honest with yourself about what you intend to achieve by it and assess the options most likely to result in the best outcome for you. What constitutes this depends upon the reason for the action, but it is usually money.

Don’t assume that the winning party is always fully recompensed; costs are awarded at the discretion of the judge, and a technical victory in the case might not extend to an award of all costs also. Expenses notwithstanding, you won’t be recompensed for the stress it caused you and you certainly won’t ever get back the time you spent on the whole thing!

It is often the case that by the time a dispute arrives to the point of litigation, there has been so much disagreement and acrimony that the issue has usually escalated way beyond the original problem. Emotion can generate feelings of injustice and a desire to impose a moral victory, or not wanting to lose face. This is where a good lawyer is necessary, as they will cut right to the core of the problem and advise solely on the most efficient and realistic solution. That’s what a good lawyer does, I can’t speak on behalf of bad ones!

As a client, you should be aware that the decision on whether to progress with significant legal action is based upon a combination of the following factors (in no particular order):

  • The total monetary value of the claim – smaller amounts may never be worth the cost of certain types of litigation.
  • The potential cost of the action and its implication to the client – can you afford to sustain the action? Is time a significant factor? For example, if the process drags on for years, will this detrimentally affect your business?
  • The relative strength of the client’s case and likelihood of success.
  • The net benefit to the client in the event of a successful outcome.
  • The reality of actually receiving any award from the other party.

When discussing the problem with a lawyer, you must give them a full account of everything that has happened, even if that includes mistakes by you. You are not being judged so don’t present a modified version of events that you believe best represents the situation. You can be sure that if you have omitted anything significant, your lawyer will find out as soon as the other party presents its case, which is not ideal, and may even be too late.

In summary, if you find yourself faced with a decision about legal action, whether instigated by you or as defendant, ensure that you are completely objective and above all, realistic about the best course of action. Ego or emotion will lead you down the wrong path!

The public administration office – A universal truth

public admin officeThere are some universal truths when dealing with public administrators in deeply bureaucratic countries. The first of which is:

‘No matter how well prepared you are, they will always ask for a document that you don’t have.’

It will probably be something you have never had, or even knew existed.

Don’t panic, my advice is never admit anything! To leave now with a view to returning at a later date with said document is just setting you up for the same problem next time. What you must do is to begin confidently searching through a huge bundle of badly organised documents (that you prepared earlier) and make it look like it will take a good while.

If you are really lucky they will continue processing your paperwork and forget about it

If they decide to sit and wait, or ask for it again after 10 minutes, wait momentarily for them to get interrupted by the telephone, or someone else butting in from behind asking a really awkward convoluted question (don’t worry, that will definitely happen) and confidently hand over a document (anything similar looking to what they asked for) just out of direct sight, but within peripheral vision.

As they are busy that moment, they will likely leave it to one side and hopefully resume without actually looking at it

If that doesn’t work, you are left with the all-or-nothing option, which is to fain a sudden realisation as to where the document actually is and promptly send your colleague off to get it from a conveniently close location. The goal of all this tedious procrastination is to arrive at the perfect point in time whereby it is more effort for them to undo what they have already done and hand your stuff back, than it is to finish it and get rid of you regardless. Good luck!

The public administration office – Nobody asked for your opinion

I am reminded of the late trouble-shooter Sir John Harvey-Jones frustratingly, and correctly, trying to explain to a once successful family business how they need to modernise or face certain failure – they simply don’t want to hear it! No amount of evidence-based reason will dispel the belligerent certainty that everything stays the same.

This is my experience of countries that persist with a deeply entrenched bureaucratic mind-set, but of course these public administrations cannot fail, they are engrained into the fabric of society and culture and protected therein. Any naive heartfelt plea from you, no matter how justified and well-meaning, to highlight some inefficiency or futility of a procedure will at absolute best fall upon deaf ears, but in many cases cause personal offence.

public admin officeLeave your utopian vision at home, it is not welcome here, there are no customer feedback surveys and no suggestion boxes. It is a simple inevitability; the system will break your spirit and mindless acceptance is the only way to survive. The quicker you realise that the better.

The reams of documentation, signatures, stamps and seemingly pointless repetitive authentication by Public Notaries followed by days of lingering in rather unpleasant chaotic institutional public administration offices (all in different places) will reduce even the most self assured character into a helpless number, metaphorically of course because there is no queuing system.