FOUR families who paid up to £80,000 for their dream new homes 14 years ago still have no clear title to ownership.
A Herald investigation has uncovered a saga that brings into question whether homebuyers have any comeback against solicitors, at a time when government initiatives are driving an expansion in new homes.
Builder Braid Homes went bust after completing only a handful of the planned 56 houses at Happy Valley Road in Blackburn, West Lothian. It had built four homes on land it did not fully own.
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Another builder took over but in November 2000 the Keeper of the Registers informed solicitors that the four properties, along with the sewer outlet for a further 17 houses, were partially or wholly on a strip of land owned by farmer Robert Findlay.
Despite the warning, the situation remained unresolved and in February 2002 the strip of land was sold by Mr Findlay for £150,000 to property developer Crannog.
Crannog then asked the Law Society's indemnity scheme, which insures solicitors against being sued for negligence, to pay it £85,000 to settle the rights of the 17 houses with sewer outlets on its land. Insurers Royal and Sun Alliance agreed without demur.
But there was no agreement to Crannog's price for delivering proper ownership to the four houses, based on an independent land valuation of £650,000 obtained by Crannog director Jack Anderson.
The four families received notices of actions for eviction, and "rent" demands of £600 a month from Crannog, triggering stress and health problems.
Mr Anderson said: "We had hoped to deal with the indemnity insurer directly.
"We had no intention of causing distress to the residents, but solely for the purpose of reasonable compensation we were advised by our solicitors that we must raise actions of removal against them.
"They in turn would be left to raise individual actions against their own solicitors."
The Law Society of Scotland said: "Any client who believes they have suffered in this case may bring a claim against their solicitor, and the master policy provides indemnity for that solicitor against such claims."
The first action brought for solicitor negligence was abandoned by QCs days before a Court of Session hearing in 2006, after the insurers produced an expert report.
It said spotting the house was in the wrong place "would have been the performance of a particularly careful and astute solicitor" and not an ordinary one doing his job.
In a legal opinion for another family, however, one of Scotland's top authorities on conveyancing, Professor Robert Rennie, said failure to find negligence in such a case would be a charter for solicitors to avoid liability for what they were "expressly employed to do" by homebuyers.
Another legal expert, in a report for a case that did not reach court, wrote: "It has to be accepted that a member of the public is entitled to rely upon his/her solicitor to ensure that a proper title is obtained."
The families involved have refused to talk to outside parties about the case or their legal reports, copies of which are in the court files of Crannog. One resident told The Herald: "We are not allowed to say anything."
Crannog faces liquidation after running out of cash in its legal fight with Royal and Sun Alliance, while the residents are still in limbo, unable to sell their homes or pass them on to their families.
Mr Anderson, who faces personal bankruptcy, said: "This was a simple matter that could have been resolved amicably 11 years ago for less than half of all the legal fees expended. We have a legal system which happily denies the rights of an individual to land ownership."
Margo Macdonald, the Independent Lothians MSP, said: "Having come across this case years ago I am very grateful to The Herald for the work it has done to try to shine more light on it than I was able to.
"I think it would be useful for the Law Society to explain in what way they investigated the work done by their members."
The Law Society of Scotland said it had no involvement in cases involving the master policy and could only investigate conduct complaints brought by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, which has a six-year time bar on complaints.
Royal and Sun Alliance was not able to respond.