Sun spot homeowners turn heat on protector: British clients claim a crusader for their rights has let them down

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The Independent Online
AN ORGANISATION that made a name for itself as a crusader for the rights of British property owners in Spain has closed amid allegations that it provided a poor service to people who paid thousands of pounds for help.

On Friday, Edward McMillan-Scott, the Conservative MEP for York, who had close contact with the organisation, asked the Department of Trade and Industry to investigate. However, the DTI will probably require a formal complaint from a client of the International Property Owners Organisation (Ipoo) before it starts an inquiry.

Ipoo was set up by Sandra Lewin and incorporated in 1988. Based in Chiswick, west London, it aimed to represent people locked in disputes with property developers.

Mrs Lewin spoke out about problems with Spanish developers and Ipoo took up individuals' cases. It charged annual fees for membership, as well as separate amounts to represent property owners in legal actions. Ipoo ceased to operate on 5 November. Mrs Lewin blames the recession and late payment of bills by many of the individuals who used Ipoo's services. There were client debts of pounds 14,000, she says.

Mr McMillan-Scott had no official link with Ipoo, although he was patron of a timeshare consumers' organisation that merged with Ipoo. He has campaigned for consumer protection for property buyers in Spain and Portugal.

He was not aware that Ipoo had not filed accounts with Companies House. He was also surprised to learn that it had ceased to operate.

'I am not responsible for Ipoo, although I have supported the organisation and believe it was doing the right thing.'

Mr McMillan-Scott said Mrs Lewin was a dedicated crusader, but he believed she may have been 'uncommercial' in the way she ran Ipoo. He was not aware of dissatisfaction among former clients. If there were genuine grievances, they should be taken to the DTI, he said.

Mrs Lewin defended Ipoo and claimed she had become the victim of a witch hunt. She admitted that Ipoo's accounts had got into a mess, however. This was because she had been fully occupied. 'I was always abroad working for members.'

She was fined pounds 300 plus pounds 35 costs in April for failing to file accounts at Companies House. No accounts have been filed since Ipoo was incorporated.

Some former clients say they paid thousands of pounds to Ipoo to fight legal battles in Spain, but that little progress has been made in resolving their problems. These range from disputes over the quality of building work to threatened repossession of properties by banks that have loaned money to developers.

Brian Roe is president of the Amarilla Golf & Country Club Owners Association, which has 189 members - all in dispute with developers over properties in the Amarilla development in Tenerife. Mr Roe said his organisation paid Ipoo pounds 75,000. 'We commissioned Sandra Lewin to provide us with a report on the problems surrounding our situation, and that report was paid for. She recommended a course of action through lawyers she was using in Madrid.'

Later, Mr Roe said, he discovered that the court action she said had been lodged in Madrid had not been.

Keith Baker, a solicitor with Croft Baker & Co, is representing a client who obtained a county court judgment against Ipoo in September for more than pounds 8,000. The bulk of this represented money paid by Mr Baker's client to Ipoo for settlement of a Spanish property tax. Mr Baker said there is evidence that the money has not been passed on and his client now faces a penalty for late payment.

Russell Greenfield is president of the Association for the Defence of Parque Albatross, another Spanish development. Mrs Lewin had been recommended to him as a 'high- powered Englishwoman who could put us in contact with Spanish lawyers'.

The owners each agreed to pay pounds 1,000 to her - pounds 500 upfront and pounds 500 when the case went to court. 'Most paid the full amount because they got a letter saying (the case) had gone to court.'

But Mr Greenfield said he discovered this summer that the matter had not reached court.

A spokesman for the Edificio Flamingo Owners' Association, another action group for buyers of properties in Tenerife, said his group had employed Ipoo for about five years. Recently, he claimed, there had been a dispute over when and if funds paid to Ipoo had been forwarded as agreed. Mrs Lewin had maintained that they had been paid to the third party. The spokesman was still uncertain last week about whether the money had been passed on.

Mrs Lewin defended her actions in each of these cases. She said all the money collected from clients had been used properly and was documented.

She denied that the members of the Amarilla group had paid as much as pounds 75,000. 'We were heavily involved constantly at ever greater expense in trying to resolve their situation.'

She said the court action had been on the point of being lodged when the currency regulations changed and the case could not go ahead.

In the Parque Albatross case, she claimed, the action could not be completed because not all the individuals had paid their fees to Ipoo.

She said she was arranging for Mr Baker's client to have his taxes paid now. Asked about the lost cheque from members of the Edificio association, she said she did not know what it was talking about. She added that she had done work for this group and charged no fees.

Mrs Lewin said the British had high expectations of legal actions, but in Spain it could take years to put a case through the courts.

(Photograph omitted)

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