France, property rental and getting ripped off – Part 3

Having resolved to recover the money not paid to me (see here and here) I was then faced with the challenge of doing this in France. While I’ve lived a a number of different countries, my background is predominantly British. So my main familiarity with legal systems and so on is thus also British.

In this article I will describe how I set about recovering the money in France. I will occasionally compare and contrast with how these sorts of things happen in Britain. Now I’m not one of those whinging Brits who bangs on about how “we” do it and how badly “they” do it!! I merely offer the comparisons as a point of reference which may or may not clarify things.

In summary, while the British system and the French system used in such cases are somewhat different in the details, I’d suggest that the overall effectiveness of them is very similar – so I’m not raging against either one.

So read on for how to do it…

Where to start?

I’m a foreigner in France. My knowledge of the legal system is negligible. My spoken French is passable but by no means good, and my written French is dreadful. So I immediately go to a local solicitor and say “Here’s the facts, go get my money please”

He at least agrees that I’ve got a case and agrees to write the obligatory Lawyer’s Letter to the property rental agency. He also suggests that it’s very likely that in response the agent (and landlord, who is obviously in the loop behind the agent) will offer a settlement and, assuming it’s at all sensible, I will take it and it’ll have cost me the price of his letter. He also advised, however, that in the event of no settlement being forthcoming, the cost of taking it to court (i.e. his bill!) might not be justified. Hmmmm.

That sounded promising, though, so off goes the letter to the agent. We wait many months and hear nothing from anyone.

It turns out that the agent had in fact replied fairly quickly to the lawyer’s letter, saying, essentially, “No”. But our lawyer had rather fallen asleep on the job and failed to contact us. Things dragged on a bit, but eventually we discover that now our tardy lawyer has left the law firm completely and we’re (almost) back to square one. This interlude actually took the best part of one year, and at the end of it all we picked up the entire file from the law firm and were advised that the best way to proceed was actually to use the French equivalent of what in Britain is called the Small Claims Court. In France the equivalent is called Le Tribunal d’Instance. Google away for countless links, but here’s a starting point.

It’s worth pointing out at this stage that in the end, having had a lawyer’s professional advice and a detailed letter setting out precisely what we were asking for, in perfect French legal-speak, was extremely useful anyway. The fact that we then went solo without a lawyer was, I think, substantially helped by that initial formal correspondence being on file. But I get ahead of myself…

After looking into it it sounded feasible, if a little scary (for a “foreigner”) so I duly started out. It’s fair to say that I have a French spouse who is obviously much more capable than I of making phone calls and writing letters in French! So I would advise anyone else embarking on this to have a French friend (or spouse!) available, if only to check letters before sending them. And to help with the odd telephone call. However I must emphasise that the whole procedure does NOT require great expertise in elegant high-brow French, I assure you. Most of the forms and correspondence can be reduced to a few sentences and plenty of lists and bullet points.

Le Tribunal d’Instance

We contacted the Court d’Instance in the town where we had been living (Antibes) and they gave us the (simple) forms to fill in and a brief explanation of the procedure to follow.

Here a brief diversion into a comparison with the British Small Claims Court process: the aim of the British system was to provide a legal recourse for common civil disputes which was accessible. Now accessibility means several things in such context. Firstly, it means “cheap” – we all know that expensive legal fees can be a barrier to justice. If I want to recover E500, I don’t want to pay all of that (and more) to a lawyer on the off-chance that I win. The second aspect of accessibility, for me, means for the common man. The legal system is famously daunting and complex, and the Small Claims procedure is designed so that any averagely educated person with no specific legal knowledge can put their case before a court, without fear of being either bamboozled by the law nor fearful of the act itself.

The French Court d’Instance is, I assume, designed to achieve similar aims. I’ll say now that is succeeds, with one slight exception which I’ll come to later!

Who to sue?

To date, all of our dealings had been with the letting agency. However to issue a claim in the court it’s important that you ensure you are suing the right person. Take out the tenancy agreement you signed all those months or years ago before moving in, and the name of the other party will be there in plain sight. And it’s unlikely to be the agency, but rather the property owner. They are the ones you must name as the “other party”.

(Now as it happens we already knew this, and, prior to going to court, had written directly to the owners advising them that we were unhappy with how their agent was acting and indicating that court was imminent if payment was not forthcoming. They didn’t want to know. Hoever it’s orth doing, if only to show later you really did try and avoid litigation)

Paperwork

So the forms get filled in. Apart from supplying the names and so on regarding the two parties, most of the form you complete is a blank box where you describe what you are after and why. On the principle of simple-is-best, I wrote (in French, of course…) just a couple of sentences explaining that an amount of 516 Euros due to us from our rental deposit had not been paid, nor the deduction justified. No argument, no clever explanation from me – just a simple statement of fact.

The other, in many ways much more important, item you complete at this stage is a complete list of all documents you will submit to support your claim. You do not submit the documents yet, but you do need to identify them. You must make sure you cover everything here. I think my list ran to about 14 items or so. Item 1 was the original tenancy agreement, Item 2 the original ├ętat des lieux, then we’re on to letters from the agent, photocopies of the cheque, letter from my solicitor, agent’s response, etc. etc. Too much is better than too little here (although don’t get silly…)

In due course you will be required to send copies of all these documents to your adversary and, if it goes to a court hearing, to give the originals (where appropriate) of all of them to the judge. So make sure your filing system is in good order. And that the documents actually exist.

This submission then gets sent off to the local Tribunal d’Instance and, shortly afterwards, they tell you of the date and time for your appearance at court. They also tell you that, as of now, you need to send a copy of all the documents you have listed as being submitted to the court also to your adversary. Do it, and make sure it’s by recorded delivery with proof of delivery.

Our day in court is imminent!

I was actually pretty confident that within a short while of receiving the full dossier, and realising that we were serious, the property owners would agree to settle.

They did not. In fact about two weeks before the appointed date we receive a letter from their solicitor (of whom nothing had been heard until that point) informing us that he was acting on their behalf, and asking us to send him a copy of all the documents we were submitting. I wrote back and told him to ask his client for them, as they had already been supplied. I had no obligation to send two sets of documents out, and had no intention of doing so.

And so to court… in Part 4!

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