An odd couple close their joint account

When their court battle with Lloyds Bank finally ends, Julia Verity and Richard Spindler will go their separate ways. They told Angela Lambert why
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The Independent Online
They are an unusual - indeed, to use their own word, an odd couple, Richard Spindler and Julia Verity; and not just because they took on the might of Lloyds Bank and (up to a point) won. Alleging that Lloyds was responsible for their financial losses due to bad business advice, they pursued the Black Horse Bank all the way to the High Court. They spent five years researching legal precedents and assembling their evidence and acted as "litigants in person" - conducting their own case - during the 12-day hearing in May this year. Monday's award of pounds 77,500 damages gave them victory in principle, though whether it also turns out to be victory in terms of their eventual monetary reward has yet to be decided. They may still end up bankrupt.

Richard Spindler and Julia Verity seem at first glance a classically ordinary English couple: middle-class, middle-aged, modestly blinking in the limelight of media attention after the judge handed down judgment. But look a little closer and the reality turns out to be very different.

Julia Verity is 55, divorced with two grown-up sons, a former junior school teacher. She is beautiful in the manner of Anouk Aimee or Anne Bancroft, with the same bell of dark hair surrounding a finely boned face. She wears no make-up, drinks no alcohol or coffee, and worried about the environment back in the Sixties, years before it had begun to trouble most people. Before the first day of the hearing at the Law Courts in the Strand she had never made a public speech in her life.

Richard Spindler, 36, was an acupuncturist until the stresses of the long legal battle took their toll and his practice collapsed. They are not married and, due to the age difference between them, had never intended to marry. He feels the biological clock ticking away as powerfully as any woman: "I turn and look at every baby in a pram. I follow babies in the street. As for seeing twins, I can hardly bear the yearning."

They met in 1984 when Richard was 25 and Julia 44. She had been invited by a friend to a charity fashion show at which Richard was one of the amateur models. They met at the gathering afterwards and attraction was instant and mutual. "I asked her to marry me after our second meeting," Richard says. "I gave her my grandmother's pearls, the family pearls, because she reminded me of my grandmother, who was an extraordinary woman, a fighter like Julia. I saw at once that she was different from anybody else I'd ever encountered."

At this point Richard had a Higher National Diploma in metallurgy, but was about to change direction and begin training as an acupuncturist. Julia had recently divorced after 21 years of marriage and was living in the family home with her sons, Hugh, 17, and Robert, 14. For her, too, the attraction was instantaneous. Within three months Richard had left his parents' home to move in with her. "I was frightened by the fact that I was getting involved with somebody as young as Richard. I worried about what my sons would think."

They pick up and finish each other's sentences, and alternate in telling their story as if they were performing an operatic duet. "I was 25 when I entered their family," Richard says, "only a few years older than Hugh, yet not once has either of them said 'You're not my father and you don't belong here.' They were amazingly accepting and understanding. As for the age difference, it can be a wonderful experience when the woman is in early middle-age, while for a young man an affair with an older woman is a very secure place to be.

"With healing," Richard says of his acupuncture, "you have to give as much as you can. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and compassion; you have to make yourself extremely vulnerable to other people's needs and suffering. You give up your own ego and let yourself work entirely for other people".

"We ran the practice in my house," says Julia, "and with his healing skills and my practical support we were a great combination."

But life was not without problems. Robert, Julia's younger son, had behavioural difficulties as a result of food allergies, and just as these were being sorted out he contracted glandular fever. The whole family went for counselling and things seemed to improve.

Richard owned a house bought for him by his parents in 1986 in lieu of his mother's inheritance. Julia, in need of more money since she was no longer receiving support for her sons from her ex-husband, looked for ways to augment her income. She had given up teaching to help with Richard's practice, so in 1988 - the heady days of a soaring property market - she hit on the idea of buying and doing up a house, and re-selling it at a profit.

Enter the bank manager.

Acting on his advice, the couple took out a short-term bridging loan and with it bought a third house in Henley-on-Thames, intending to sell it as a business venture. But doing it up took longer and cost more than they had expected, and meanwhile the property market bubble burst; prices flattened out, began to fall, then fell dramatically. Instead of getting the hoped-for pounds 165,000, they got only pounds 135,000, and the bridging loan ran a year over its expected time, notching up horrific interest charges. Richard's house had been let, bringing in a handy additional income, but the bank pressured them to sell it to cover their mounting bank loans. They did, though it cost pounds 4,000 to persuade his lodgers to move. The situation went from bad to worse, and by May 1990 their bridging loan had risen to over pounds 200,000.

"This whole debacle took over our lives and stopped us in our tracks," Julia says. "Richard began to get terrible stomach cramps and the doctor said they were the result of stress. He gave Richard pethidine to enable him to function at all. I could see that we were just going to get deeper and deeper into debt. I walked the house for two hours every night; my nerves just collapsed. We owed pounds 2,300 interest per month to the bank, which was two and a half times as much as our total earnings. Later we discovered that Lloyds had overcharged us by pounds 1,000 a month, and although they paid that back, by then we were in deep trouble.

"If it hadn't been for help from our families, and an insurance policy Richard had taken out in case of ill-health, we would have been penniless. We were locked in debt. We lived very frugally. If it hadn't been for the help of our counsellor in holding the relationship together, we would probably have lost each other."

They sought guidance from lawyers about suing the bank for its disastrous business advice and were discouraged from proceeding, but Richard and Julia decided to go it alone.

"We were determined not to feel any hatred towards the bank," Richard adds. "It is always possible to turn any situation into something better. As to what motivates the bank ... I don't know. They seem completely monolithic, as though they have lost sight of human needs and emotions. They say they want to build up good customer relations but it's done with a blank face. We have won the case on the issue of principle and now they're counter- claiming. It's as though they are determined to drive us into bankruptcy.

"We understood from the outset that the law could not award compensation for the stress we had suffered, although actually it's been just as incapacitating as losing a leg. Oddly enough, I think banks need to recognise the seriousness of money and the shattering impact that debt and money worries can have on people's lives."

What happens now? The bank's counter-claims for interest will be heard in November and the judge will deliver his final judgment in January. It is a vagary of the legal system that if Richard and Julia's award of pounds 77,500, plus a further claim for loss of Julia's earnings, total less than Lloyds Bank's counter-claim, they will be liable for their own and the bank's costs - which would certainly bankrupt them.

Yet they have no regrets. Julia says: "If we had sat down and thought about it we'd never have done it. But the point came when we couldn't turn back. I knew we would never recover our financial losses, but the principle drove us on. We've been very isolated by all this. We lost everything but the sense of justice."

Richard adds: "So many people told us 'Give up, let it go, walk away and find another life.' But we felt that until we could rebuild our own self-respect by standing up publicly and saying we were wronged, we couldn't move on."

What happens now to their relationship?

Julia says forthrightly: "We'll go our separate ways when the case ends. Richard is running out of time and so am I - he's got to hurry up or he'll be an old father! I always feel like saying when we're interviewed: are there any nice middle-class girls out there for Richard?" She laughs. "She'd better be rich because he's got nothing - no house, no career, no money left."

Richard says: "Now that Julia's approaching 60 she's beginning to want to settle down and find an older man with whom to retire and enjoy a calmer life, while I am now more than ready to marry and start a family. If only we could have had children together, we'd never separate. I know I shall miss her intelligence and maturity. We'll never lose touch - after all we've been through together, I'm sure of that."

Julia says: "There's a longing in me now to be with an older person. It would be comforting to be with someone my own age. But I hope to be godmother to Richard's children."

It seems a strange, almost naive hope. It is hard to imagine another, younger woman being comfortable with Julia's calm and mature beauty, her intimate knowledge of Richard, her importance in his life and all that they have been through together. Yet both seem unperturbed by this potential threesome, convinced that they can remain lifelong friends. She has taught him such a lot, he says; above all, how to grow up.