Lease reform put to test

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TWO Londoners made legal history this week when they became the first homeowners in the UK to appear before a tribunal and seek an extension to their lease under the new Leasehold Reform Act.

Charles Waitt and his partner, Jean Burkin, went before the Leasehold Valuation Tribunal to ask for a 90-year extension to the existing 79-year lease on their flat in Friern Barnet, London.

They were hoping to take advantage of the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act, which came into force in November. They have calculated that their flat, which they are selling for pounds 52,000, will be worth about pounds 2,000 less without the extension they are asking for.

Mr Waitt said: 'A few people who came to see the flat were not happy with the fact that it only had a 79-year lease. They told us it was too low to get a mortgage on it and that it lowered the value of the flat in their eyes.'

The new Act allows leaseholders a 90-year extension to their lease. They have to pay the freeholder for this.

In the case brought by Mr Waitts and Ms Burkin the amount they believed they should pay was pounds 1,000. But the freeholders had disappeared several years earlier and could not be traced. This gives the tribunal the right to hear the case in a freeholder's absence. Any price it sets for the extension is paid to the tribunal and can be claimed by the freeholder if he or she appears.

Mr Waitts said: 'When we decided to extend the lease, we went to the freeholders' last known address, but they had moved away quite a few years ago. We also phoned every one with the same name in the county telephone book.'

The couple's solicitor, Jennifer Israel, told the court that the firm of solicitors acting for the freeholder in the 1980s had gone out of business, making it impossible to trace the freeholders that way.

However, Lady Hazel Fox, chairwoman of the Leasehold Valuation Tribunal, also heard that the tribunal itself had not sent details of the hearing to them at their last recorded address, potentially denying them the opportunity to turn up and put their case. Tribunal members agreed to hear the case in the freeholders' absence provided they were sent details of it. Should they contact the tribunal within 21 days, any decision it might make would be set aside and a fresh hearing would be held. A decision is expected in the next few weeks.

(Photograph omitted)