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Television designer still without 'valid' title to Aberdeen flat he bought in 2002 for £135,000

The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has published its first consumer guide, aimed at giving "practical tips on using a solicitor to buy and sell a home".

Conveyancing problems account for one in five complaints to the SLCC, which replaced the legal ombudsman in 2008, and the numbers appear to be rising.

"In 2013, Scots spent over £13 billion buying property," the SLCC says. "Buying or selling a house is one of life's big events. It can take time, money and a certain amount of stress."

The guide's key points are: shop around for a solicitor; check costs in advance; agree clearly on communications; ask if you don't understand; expect your solicitor to follow your instructions; complain if dissatisfied and expect a response in 28 days; if still unhappy, go to the SLCC.

But can the Scottish legal system guarantee to deliver valid ownership of a property to someone who has handed over the money for it?

An Aberdeen man who paid £135,000 for his flat in 2002 still does not have title to the property, and has been told by a judge that his vendor's trustee in ­bankruptcy has a better claim to it than he has, The Herald can reveal.

The saga has cost Sinclair Brebner, a successful TV designer, years of anxiety and latterly ill-health.

Last October, The Herald reported how four West Lothian families were still without valid title to the new houses for which they paid up to £80,000 in 1999 and 2000. Attempts to sue their solicitors, and trigger redress through the Law Society of Scotland's Master Policy, which indemnifies all solicitors against negligence claims, failed when insurers Royal & SunAlliance resisted the actions.

Mr Brebner bought his flat in December 2002. But in 2007, when he tried to sell it, he discovered the title had never been registered to himself, or to Howemoss, the company supposedly selling it. He then learned that the man who showed him round the flat, David George Pocock, a director of Howemoss, had gone bankrupt a year later, while Mr Pocock's former solicitor Russell Taylor was also out of ­business. He had been suspended from practice for six years in 2002 after the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal found him guilty of professional misconduct in relation to Aberdeen property transactions.

Mr Pocock and Mr Taylor were among nine people accused of Aberdeen property frauds totalling £7m, and put on trial at the High Court in Glasgow in January 2010. The case collapsed after two months.

But in 2011, it was Mr Brebner who was with others taken to court by Mr Pocock's trustee in bankruptcy, Ewen Alexander, of Johnston Carmichael. Mr Brebner faces eviction from his home and the loss of his property, now worth £350,000, because a judge has so far ruled that although Mr Pocock has no right to the property, his creditors may have.

Solicitors acting for Mr Alexander, in an averment to the Court of Session debate in September 2011, said Howemoss's claim to title of the flat was based on a "forged replacement" for the original document executed in 2000 in favour of Mr Pocock (not Howemoss) by Skene Investments - Aberdeen's £25m property company headed by Professor Charles Skene. Mr Alexander knew of four similar "alterations" to dispositions of properties "purchased by Mr Pocock with the assistance of Mr Taylor", and he believed the purpose had been "to avoid stamp duty". The irregularities meant that the title was still registered to Skene, a defender in the action, but ought to transfer to Mr Pocock's estate, he said.

Lord Uist dismissed Mr Brebner's defence, largely because Scots law says the trustee has a right to include any "uncompleted title" within the bankrupt's estate.

Meanwhile, Mr Brebner has run out of money and is unable to defend himself further against the action by Mr Alexander, which goes to proof in October. He has also been asked to pay £13,000 to the trustee's legal costs.

An independent opinion for Mr Brebner, by Professor Robert Rennie of Glasgow University, noted that in another disputed transaction involving the liquidated Howemoss, a fresh disposition to resolve the issue had been provided by Skene Investments.

Professor Skene commented that his firm had had "no involvement with the property since 2002".

Mr Taylor, in defences to an action by Mr Brebner in 2012, pointed to his own acquittal on all criminal charges, denied any duty of care to Mr Brebner and said any responsibility lay with Mr Brebner's purchasing solicitors.

An action against those solicitors, Esslemont Cameron Gauld, now merged with Ledingham Chalmers, might have triggered a claim on the profession's Master Policy, but no action has ever been taken.

Jennifer Young, partner at Ledingham Chalmers, said the firm had not represented Mr Brebner since the merger. On how Ledingham Chalmers was able to advise trustee Mr Alexander in his action while also being long-standing legal adviser to Skene Investments, Ms Young said: "In relation to this court action, we are advising only Mr Alexander, the pursuer."

Mr Alexander said it was his " legal duty to act on behalf of the creditors". He added: "While we would, of course, have sympathy for anyone who is faced with losing a home to which they believed they had ownership, this is clearly a matter between them and the advisers who acted for them at the time of purchase."

Balfour & Manson, advisers to Mr Brebner, said the Master Policy required legal tests of negligence to be satisfied, and the claim should be directed against those solicitors responsible before Mr Brebner's purchase.

Morison's, solicitors for Mr Taylor and Mr Pocock, declined to comment.

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