Edinburgh property repairs scandal was used by solicitors in attempt to gain homes on the cheap. THE SCANDAL involving Statutory Repair Notices issued by officials at Edinburgh City Council requiring householders to undertake unnecessary and expensive building work to properties in Scotland’s capital was used as a cover by several big name Scots law firms in an attempt to persuade or pressurise householders into selling their properties on the cheap, claim some victims who have been forced to the brink of financial ruin.
Documents handed to Scottish Law Reporter this week contain complaints made against the conduct of several ‘leading’ solicitors and their law firms, yet curiously those who have alleged misconduct on the part of solicitors or have formally complained against members of the legal profession have had their claims cold shouldered by regulators and the authorities.
It transpires at least three of the law firms identified in the documents have, and continue to provide Edinburgh City Council with legal services. It is also of note several of the law firms named in the claims who are thought to have profited from the property repairs scandal are known to contain family members & relatives of senior members of Scotland’s judiciary. One of the victims has told Scottish Law Reporter he believes there is a direct link to harassment he received regarding a property repair notice, and a family member of a Scottish judge who owns a property nearby.
Homeowners have provided examples of ‘harassing letters’ from solicitors urging owners to sell their properties “before the repair bills exceeded the values of you property in this downward market” while others have offered evidence including video recordings showing they were subjected to visits from Sheriff officers who claimed to have papers seizing properties in the name of recovering debts associated with the repair bills.
It has also emerged that several elderly property owners, predominantly elderly widows were sent letters by law firms warning of the use of Statutory Repair Notices on their properties which could amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds, with a follow up letter offering “several options available to you including relocation should you feel any offers made to you to be appropriate”. Law firms who sent these letters, also apparently offered to carry out any necessary legal work for free on the prospect of a property transaction taking place.
Amazingly, no one has been charged with corruption in the repairs scandal at Edinburgh City Council, a decision branded by victims of the scandal as “a cover up & failure by Scotland’s Crown Office”, however 15 people have been charged in a separate inquiry into the council's property repairs department.
It has already been reported that in the initial property conservation department investigation, Lothian & Borders Police found no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing. So far 11 employees across the property service have been dismissed and six are suspended pending disciplinary action by Edinburgh City Council.
Edinburgh City Council uses statutory notices to ensure essential repairs are carried out on its historic tenements. Under the system, the council can intervene to organise repair work on private properties when the owners of shared buildings cannot reach agreement.However, Edinburgh City Council is up to £40m out of pocket due to the problems in the department.Detectives were also called in to investigate claims of fraud, bribery and corruption. However, the case has now been dropped after a report passed to the Crown Office recommended that no further action was to be taken.
In November 2012, a Crown Office spokesman said: "There will be no criminal charges in respect of allegations of fraud involving the property conservation department of the council. However, we would like to make it clear that investigations are ongoing in relation to allegations of criminality concerning the property care services department of the City of Edinburgh Council. Once these allegations are completed, a decision will be taken on whether or not proceedings should be raised."
Also, during November 2012, the director of city development, Dave Anderson, resigned before a disciplinary inquiry into his management of the department was completed.
BBC News also reported last November that Gordon Murdie, of Quantus quantity surveyors, who has more than 200 clients who have been affected by the property repairs controversy, said: "This decision has opened the flood gates.We will be pursuing the council to force them, enable them and assist them to do what they ought to have been doing for many years now, which is to resolve the people's cases.The cost to Edinburgh is almost immeasurable, it will certainly be more than £200m."
Mr Aitken said: "I'm shocked and deeply saddened. A huge injustice has been perpetrated not just on the owners but on the people of Edinburgh.I personally have seen evidence of substandard materials being overcharged for, of collusion over changing rates during the tendering process and businesses getting tenders they should not have got because they were outside the procured process. This is outrageous and I would call on the the council to reopen that investigation."
Aline McMillan, a Shandon resident affected by the repairs controversy, said she had worked hard all her life to look after her home and it was left in a "state". "Nobody cares. I've got to prove that this was the council," she said. I've got a whole box of paperwork and photos before and after but I would just like somebody to listen.There are people older than me who must be really, really depressed because living in the dark is bad enough but having nobody listening to you is shocking."
Currently, Edinburgh City Council is trying to secure assurances from the Crown Office there will be no further criminal action taken by prosecutors over the statutory repairs scandal after the council’s governance, risk and best value committee agreed to the move after being quizzed during a closed meeting over Police Scotland’s handling of the case.
A spokesperson for the Crown Office declined to comment on whether any law firms would be investigated over allegations already reported to the authorities.
The Law Society of Scotland refused to comment on the allegations.