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Jonathan, firstly can you tell readers of The Brief a bit about your own background and how you got involved with The PLA?
The firm I originally started with in 1981, Saunders Sobell Leigh & Dobin, specialised in property law and its major client, Heron Corporation, had very substantial interests in all types of properties, including service stations, residential housing estates, shopping centres, and offices and these gave rise to all sorts of disputes. I have therefore been a property litigator from the very start of my career. I can’t do anything else. I was a member of the PLA from its early days and I joined the Main Committee in 2005 and, now that I am chairman, this will be my last year on the Committee.
What do you think is the PLA’s main role and function today?
This has not changed although membership has now grown to some 1,100 property litigation specialists across the UK. The main focus in on education and training for our members, liaising with the property industry and fellow property bodies and professionals (particularly the RICS and its members), and seeking to reform the law where required and improve practice in the courts (such as by the introduction of the Dilapidations Protocol). Our events allow members to meet each other (often their opponent on a case) and discuss issues and the social side is very valuable.
What are its core aims and objectives?
To promote specialist property litigation skills within the property industry and to have a public voice regarding relevant improvements or changes that will benefit our industry and our clients generally.
What are the membership requirements?
You need to be a lawyer or legal executive substantially engaged in the field of property litigation in the UK.
What are the advantages of being a member of the PLA?
You have the opportunity to attend our events, including our two main events each year; the Annual Conference in the spring in Oxford and the annual Training Day in the autumn in London, and to access our website which contains relevant and practical articles and materials of great help to practitioners. The speakers at our events include the leading Counsel in our field and our president, Lord Neuberger, is now the most senior civil judge in the land, being president of the Supreme Court, and he speaks at our Annual Conference each year, as do leading figures in the property world.
How is the PLA structured and how does it operate across the UK?
It has a Main Committee and sub-committees comprising Education & Training, Law Reform, the Regions and the Website. It is the members of the sub-committees who do most of the hard work involved in arranging events and lobbying for change and educating our members. We do also have excellent external support from Mary Block, our secretary, and Tim Power, our events organiser.
Have you seen an upturn in litigation cases since the start of the economic downturn?
Not really as property litigation as a whole is not that cyclical or market related as, whilst a recession, can increase work in certain areas, such as rent recovery or contractual disputes, the drop in transactional work decreases work in other areas, such as lease renewal and rent reviews.
What do you think are the main challenges and opportunities that your members currently face?
The understandable concern of our clients, particularly major property companies or institutions, is to the costs of litigation. Hopefully, the Jackson Reforms to Civil Procedure which came into effect on 1st April 2013 will assist considerably in reducing costs and ensuring that all parties do strive to resolve matters economically. Our members need to deliver a quality service at the right speed and price. Many of our major clients have very substantial property portfolios and they do not want to be involved in litigation in the first place and, if they are, they want the costs to be proportionate (and recoverable from the other party, if possible).
Are you predicting any trends around property litigation for 2014?
The advent of much shorter leases, many of which will expire this year, will result in greater work on lease renewals, or dilapidations claims if the tenant vacates. There continues to be substantial litigation over tenant break clauses as well although this is at its highest when the market is poor and landlords cannot re-let premises. But, as stated above, the changes in court procedure should lead to real changes as lawyers seek to minimise costs to keep within costs budgets and ensure costs are proportionate.
Can you see any changes in legislation that will directly affect property litigation?
Yes, the changes to the law of distress will very much affect rent collection and lead to more court proceedings and much needed reforms to issues such as Rights to Light will hopefully make progress. In truth, though, it is case law that leads to constant changes in the law and practice and, for example, the decision of the Court of Appeal in the GAME case due to be heard next month will have very substantial impact on the recovery of rent where companies go into administration, whereas the decision of the Court of Appeal in the Marks & Spencer case later in the year will have considerable impact on break clause and rent apportionment disputes. The PLA is lobbying hard for changes in the law as to holding companies giving guarantees following the Good Harvest decision.
Finally, how can our readers get more information about becoming a member?
Go to our brand new and, hopefully, state of the art website. We do have representation across most of the UK so there should always be an event not too far away for any member to attend.