Thousands of Britons, who have bought holiday and retirement properties in Northern Cyprus since the partition of the Mediterranean island in 1974, are uneasily awaiting the latest developments in the case of the rights of an East Sussex couple to own their home and its implications for Cyprus property law.
Although the Court of Appeal ruled in January 2010 that a decision by the European Court of Justice backing a Cypriot court ordering demolition of the property in Lapta was valid, the couple, David and Linda Orams, of Hove, have made a plea to the European Court of Human Rights that they did not receive a fair trial in the southern (Greek) part of the island.
The complicated background to the case derives from the unofficial division of Cyprus between Greek and Turkish interests following the Turkish invasion of 1974 and the displacement of many thousands of Cypriots who abandoned their properties and moved either to the part of the island with a majority of their ethnic group or abroad.
In the following 30 years, the Republic of Cyprus was established by the Greeks in the southern two-thirds of the island while the Turks unilaterally declared the remainder the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), an entity which is not recognised by any international jurisdiction, apart from Turkey itself.
In 2002, Mr and Mrs Orams spent their life savings on the now-controversial plot of land with its semi-derelict house which they renovated and extended. They bought it in good faith from a Turkish Cypriot, did everything according to local law and were given a TRNC land deed, known as esdeger. Local estate agents told them Greek Cypriots had been recompensed with land in the south, a disputed system dating from the unofficial partition.
But, in 2004 the Greek pre-partition owner of the property, Meletios Apostolides, claimed the Orams were trespassing. The argument of his lawyer was that Cypriot Republican law did not recognise the (compulsory) land exchange, and his rights were enforceable in the north of the island.
Demolition order made on couple’s house
The tangle of politics and international property law in which the Orams found themselves began with a decision by the Nicosia District Court in southern Cyprus, ordering them to leave the house, demolish it and pay compensation to Mr Apostolides for the use of his land. The order was made against them in their absence because they had not understood the original paperwork served on them, which was written in Greek, and had to instruct a lawyer to represent them.
Judgement was given against them for failing to acknowledge service of the court papers within ten days. The Orams applied to have the judgement set aside but this was rejected by the court on the grounds that they had no valid defence.
In 2005, in an effort to enforce the court’s ruling, Mr Apostolides registered the judgements at the High Court in the UK and, procedurally, it was agreed that the action was enforceable. Mr and Mrs Orams subsequently appealed and judgment was given in their favour in September 2006.
At this stage, the influence of the European Union on the administration of law within its constituent countries was introduced in the dispute. The appeal judgement was that EU law is suspended in the north of Cyprus and the administration in the south did not exercise effective control over the north.
However, Mr Apostolides went to the Court of Appeal which said that as it was a matter involving a substantial question of EU law, the matter should be referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for a preliminary ruling.
In April 2009, the ECJ ruled that the fact that EU law is suspended in the TRNC did not preclude the application of the regulation, the fact that it is not physically possible to enforce the judgement in the TRNC because the government of the Republic of Cyprus does not exercise effective control does not prevent the enforcement of the judgement in another member state. The ECJ also rejected arguments on public policy and rejected arguments that the judgement was a default judgement on the basis that Mr and Mrs Orams had applied for a ‘Set-Aside’ Order which had been rejected.
Court of Appeal backs European Court of Justice
The case reverted to the UK Court of Appeal for decision, resulting in rejection of the Orams’ claims that enforcement of the Nicosia court’s order was contrary to public policy. The Court of Appeal also rejected their claim that the President of the ECJ when the ruling of the ECJ was given, Judge Skouris, was biased.
Although they are unable to pursue the case further through the British courts at this stage, the couple is awaiting a date for a European Court of Human Rights hearing.
Property lawyers in the TRNC have been in consultations to discuss legislative measures to protect property owners and are awaiting announcements by the government.
In a further twist in the internal politics of Cyprus, the Orams made an application to their local authority for permission to demolish their house and comply with the Court of Appeal judgement but were refused. Following this decision, the couple intends to submit an application that it is impossible for them to comply with the demolition part of the court order.
The TRNC government is believed to have offered to repay Mr and Mrs Orams’ legal costs and recompense them for their estimated purchase and building costs of their disputed home, totalling more than £1m.
Property lawyers in the TRNC have been in consultations to discuss legislative measures to protect northern Cyprus property owners, of whom there are believed to be about 5,000 Britons, and are awaiting announcements by the government. In the meantime, with the situation still unresolved, and Mr Apostolides suggesting he may pursue compensation from realisation of the Orams’ UK assets, residents who do not have property deeds from before 1974 will continue to need professional advice from lawyers specialising in property and international law.
Healys solicitors of London and Brighton and Cyprus property law
With the complexities of Cyprus property law and its continuing lack of resolution, UK-based property owners need the best-possible legal advice and representation to protect their interests. Healys, solicitors of London and Brighton, can offer such expertise through the experienced multi-lingual team of lawyers in the international law department, headed by Marios Pattihis.
For information and advice, call 020 7822 4110 or email