Property Litigation by Heather Hilder on August 27, 2021 “Property Litigation” Property Litigation – Pros, Cons, Financial and Emotional Impacts The guests I invite onto my radio show ‘Let’s Talk Property’ always have something interesting and informative to say. I like to feature some of the best interviews in this series of blogs and my special guest, Alex Cook, partner at Helix Law, told me so much that I’m writing three separate pieces just to do him justice. We have so much to talk about relating to property litigation – pros, cons, financial and emotional impacts. As a solicitor who specialises in property litigation, compliance and section notices in lettings Alex is able to give a valuable hands-on account of how to navigate this difficult, complex and often emotionally strained aspect of the property world. Beyond Conveyancing For most people who think about how solicitors are involved in property matters, conveyancing will be as far as it goes. However, making sure all the contracts for sales and purchasing of property are watertight is only one way that legal matters can impact on property. Landlords are a case in point. Various issues with tenants can lead to disputes and often issues will need recourse to the law and sometimes lead to court action. As an experienced specialist in this area Alex can answer questions around assessment, advice, guidance, mediation and negotiation. If all else fails, he also knows all about taking matters further through the courts. Alex Cook, Litigation Specialist “I’m a solicitor, I specialise in litigation, by which I mean problem solving to be honest with you,” Alex tells me by way of an introduction. “I particularly specialise in commercial disputes, so they can be disputes between companies or perhaps individuals, more often corporate disputes. And obviously property litigation and property disputes, which it sounds as though that’s particularly specialised, but even those two areas are incredibly broad.” Having been a partner at the firm he owns, Helix Law, for around twelve years and practising law for several more, Alex has had an interesting career path. “In terms of background I trained as a barrister, but I never practised as a barrister. Now I’m a solicitor and so that kind of gives you a clue as to why I’ve always been interested in litigation,” he tells me. “It’s been a slow and steady slog to get where we are, one of the largest specialist litigation firms now in the Southeast outside of London, and we continue our growth moving on. So, litigation, specialist, solicitor, sums me up I guess!” Legal process of property litigation Litigation simply means taking legal action and to be honest the thought of it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck and I think I need a stiff drink! I ask Alex if it is becoming more common or are we hearing a lot more about it because of social media and the internet? “Firstly, don’t panic, okay?” he laughs. “I guess you could say at a high level there is this tendency or a slight move towards what could be called an American model where everyone is trying to sue everybody else.” “Obviously, I look at it slightly differently and unashamedly have a slightly biased view of this, which I recognise,” he says honestly. “But really, I would like to think people are more aware than ever of their rights, and are more willing to hold people to account.” “All of the information is out there now. If I have a health issue, I’ll Google it and the law is not immune to that either. I then go to the GP with a list of all of these horrendous symptoms and they’d tell me ‘cut through the chase, it’s this, not that, unless you’re not breathing!'” “So there’s a sigh of relief, and I’d like to think that law’s no different,” he concludes. Emotions of litigation So, do people feel better if they’ve won in litigation? Or do the other people who’ve lost feel even worse? Alex replies: “I think it’s a really interesting question you’ve put there. And I think again, almost treating you as though you are a client, I would say actually being entirely transparent, I can’t give you an assurance of an emotionally satisfying outcome.” “That’s not my job, that’s not the process in terms of litigation. You may well find that at the end of what can be a long and expensive or tedious process, you are completely dissatisfied emotionally. I think this is where there can sometimes be a mismatch between managing expectations and the realities.” “Most often, people litigate because they don’t have a choice and this is something that is overlooked,” Alex continues. “If you are suffering losses, or say you have a property and you can’t do something with, or someone’s not delivered as they promised they would. Your immediate question is this is worth lots of money invariably, or it’s particularly a big problem. What can I do about that?” Three steps Working with legal issues day to day means Alex has a very different view from the rest of us who will see litigation in another light. So what the main three steps of the process? “I don’t think it’s a luxury item as it might be perceived in the sense of we’ve all watched ‘Suits’ on TV, or ‘Perry Mason’ back in the day, all of that sort of very glamorous stuff,” Alex tells me. “I think that the nuts and bolts of it are much more practical than that, ‘I don’t have a choice, I have to do something about this.’ And so, that’s why I say problem solving is our job. I think to try and position clients to improve that position on the one hand, but really help try and fix that problem.” “Litigation is only one of the tools that we can use to achieve that,” he adds. Step 1 “There are three things, shooting from the hip slightly, I would suggest,” Alex states. “Try and be as clear as can be on the facts, on the factual positioning. Present a chronology of events, what has happened? So often, we can receive a digital bin bag of noise, just a lack of certainty.” “Don’t worry about how you present the facts to me, I’ll work all of that good stuff out. But try and have any documents in good order, that admin-type stuff, so being as close as you can on the facts,” he advises. Step 2 “Secondly I would saying try and be as clear as you can be on what you’re trying to achieve,” Alex states. “You might come to me and I would say, ‘Okay, well we can do this, we can do that, we can do the other’. But actually you’ve got your own plans and it doesn’t really matter what I think might be done. It’s what you ultimately are looking to achieve.” “So, be as clear as you can on that when you arrive at our door,” he says. Step 3 Alex continues: “Tied in with this, and it might be that this is almost slightly controversial, but try to be a good client.” “We unashamedly charge for our time, and we charge typically by the hour. And so, I think that can make people nervous. But try to understand this and be as clear as you can with whomever it is you’re dealing with,” he suggests. Closure Bearing in mind the fact that many people will find taking legal action a daunting prospect, I ask Alex whether his clients are generally just looking for finality? “Absolutely,” he replies. “It’s not necessarily that I’m going to litigate, it’s more that you’ve got a problem, I’m going to resolve that problem, and I might have to litigate, but if I can avoid it, if I can negotiate or mediate, then I’ll look at those options as tools.” So unless you follow the laws of the land, then you won’t get a conclusion? “You’re completely right in saying that,” Alex agrees. “Legal cost is an investment and it’s an investment decision as to whether or not you put money behind something. I understand that people want, need and expect a return on that investment.” “I think it really needs to be at the forefront of anyone’s mind, when you were talking about solicitors, or legal process, or costs and what have you, what’s the investment?” Alex expands. “What does that look like on the one hand? And what’s your potential return on that investment? And if that stacks up, obviously we look at resolving a problem by litigation or any other mechanism. If it doesn’t, we don’t, and that is really very important I think.” More to come… On every edition of my radio show ‘Let’s Talk Property’ you can hear me talking to people who really know about their subjects and have something interesting to say. Sometimes, as with Alex, we cover so much ground that it’s hard to fit it all into one blog. So look out for the next in the series as I’ll continue with Alex’s great advice on how to make property litigation more straightforward if you find that you need to go down that route after mitigation and negotiation hasn’t resolved the problem. In the meantime you can hear my entire chat with Alex on podcast, or YouTube.