Former footballer strikes a blow for overseas investors

Now there's a way to take on dodgy developers, cartel lawyers and disappearing deposits, writes Richard Way

When Neil Heaney cried "foul" in his former life, chances are he was describing a crunching encounter on the football pitch.

These days the ex-Premier League and England Under-21 winger is more likely to use the phrase while talking about foreign property developers. Sadly, he is one of the thousands of Brits to have fallen prey to a doomed property investment during the boom years leading up to the crash in 2008.

The good news is that Heaney now brings hope to an increasing number of overseas investors who, like him, are due money back from a developer, but are daunted by the prospect of navigating a foreign legal system.

As the chief executive of Judicare, which incorporates a full-service Spanish law firm and a UK legal-services company, he provides specialist legal representation for affected buyers. Unsurprisingly, demand for his company's services has rocketed in the past couple of years.

At the start of the month, Heaney was in Madrid opening an office to complement Judicare's UK base in Hertfordshire and its Tenerife offices.

"We have more than 200 cases in court in 12 countries," Heaney told The Independent on Sunday. "At the moment we have class actions in the Emirates, as well as cases in Spain, Cape Verde and Cyprus, to name a few. More far-flung destinations recently added to our list include the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Dominican Republic."

Heaney's career move from football – he played for Arsenal, Manchester City and Southampton – to overseas property law stemmed from a personal struggle to find a reliable Spanish lawyer when his own property investment became problematic in 2009. Attracted by the promising investment prospects of off-plan, in 2006 Heaney was one of a group of high-profile investors who bought into a project on the Costa del Sol. The project failed and investors are still fighting to recover their deposits.

"I put down a deposit on an apart-hotel that was going to be on the beach in Manilva," recounts Heaney. "Each of the 25 investors in our group signed for a single unit, and our deposits, paid to the developer's solicitors, totalled around £1.5m. I believe more than 300 units were sold on the project.

"The developer appeared reputable and when we went over to view the project, everything looked in order."

Three years down the line, though, the investors received confirmation that the project had been stopped by the government and had never had planning permission. "Despite this, the developer had continued to sell the project and [is] now facing a large criminal case in Marbella, although the company has been liquidated in a number of jurisdictions," adds Heaney.

He and his co-investors asked a number of lawyers in Marbella to take on their case against the developer but were unimpressed by the legal service and advice. When they were introduced to Jose Dorta, chairman of Judicare, one difference stood out: "The firm was from Tenerife, which meant they weren't part of that 'club' of law firms on the mainland, who all knew each other. They also had a track record of recovering property investments."

Soon, footballing friends of Heaney approached him for advice on problems with their own property ventures, typically in Dubai, Cyprus, Cape Verde and Portugal. This led to Heaney joining forces with Dorta to create the UK-based legal-services firm.

Today Judicare has a growing team of English-speaking, in-house lawyers that cover issues within the Spanish territories. When necessary, it forms bilateral agreements with carefully vetted local legal representatives. Crucially, one condition of its chosen partners is that they have never represented developers in their jurisdiction. For clients, unless they request otherwise, their point of contact remains Judicare, a welcome reassurance given that problems are often down to clients' choice of lawyer when they first decided to buy abroad.

"Many clients used local lawyers who also represented developers, which meant they didn't check contracts were water-tight or that bank guarantees were in place – they were only protecting developers' interests," says Heaney. "This has led to many affected investors developing an inherent distrust of foreign lawyers."

Scenarios facing disgruntled overseas investors include failure to complete a project; late delivery of off-plan properties; projects sold on land not owned by the developer; sub-standard build quality; and disagreements over the right to reclaim deposits.

Invalid powers of attorney are another example, but more specific to the Cypriot market. "Cyprus is different because you take a mortgage at the point of reserving a property," says Heaney. "So you're paying the loan as the developer builds – or doesn't build, as in some circumstances.

"Cypriot developers and their sales agents have given clients a lawyer. The lawyers in most instances – not all – haven't then followed due process and the banks haven't followed their own banking codes, for example, granting mortgages and drawdowns that are not in keeping with the progress of the development. In some cases, all of the money has been drawn down when the project hasn't even started."

Judicare is entering judicial stages with about 60 clients in Cyprus – this number is growing daily. It's taken the firm five months to reach that point.

Proof that it is also possible for out-of-pocket Brits to find, and go direct to, a foreign law firm able and willing to win against local developers is Raquel Perez, of Marbella- based Perez Legal Group. Last year Perez helped an English couple (who wish to remain anonymous) win a case for late delivery. Her clients put down €54,000 on a property in La Linea de la Concepcion on the Costa del Sol in October 2006.

"Our apartment was meant to be ready in April 2007, but our contract had a clause allowing for a delay until October 2008," says the client. "When we got to February 2009 and it still had not been granted a licence of first occupation we terminated our contract of sale. Fortunately, our deposits were guaranteed by a Spanish bank."

The couple asked Perez to represent them when they had difficulty recovering their deposits. Last November their case went to court. The ruling was in their favour, with developer and bank ordered to pay back all their deposits with interest.

"It's quite easy for clients to win a case if the situation is in their favour, and normally this type of case can take between six and nine months," says Perez. "There are law firms who can advise of their [buyers'] situation just by them sending the private purchase contract they signed with the developers .... Before a law firm requests funds [it] should be able to advise completely free of legal costs, until they start the litigation case."

Following the flood of problems resulting from the recent economic turmoil, buyers are increasingly aware of the precautions they should take abroad. Reinforcing this, the Association of International Property Professionals (AIPP), whose members – predominantly agents and developers – commit to a strict code of conduct, has introduced a range of insurances to safeguard buyers in the areas of land title and build quality.

"When a developer goes bankrupt there is little that can be done unless the buyer has taken out insurance to protect in such instances," says Mark Sharp, AIPP's chief executive. "Complementing this, the AIPP will shortly be launching a property trust that will provide a financial safety net for all concerned in a purchase process."

A final piece of advice comes from buying advice website The Overseas Guides Company: "You need to be confident the lawyer you choose is not only capable of but wholly committed to protecting your interests. For litigation cases, while there are excellent wholly independent local lawyers abroad who can help you, you just have to know where to find them."

Obey these rules, and you minimise the chances of scoring an expensive own goal when you buy abroad. Just ask Neil Heaney...

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