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One Down, One To Go – Maybe!

Three of us have just spent the lion’s share of a week a few kilometres inland from our favourite French beach, ie Saint-Georges-de-Didonne in the Charente-Maritime. We have visited just about every coastal area in France, from Brittany southward and from Nice westward, and we have yet to find a cleaner stretch of sand than the Saint-Georges beach. If anyone who is reading this has a hankering for a seaside holiday in France, I personally recommend Saint-Georges and immediate neighbour, Royan. Superb!

Our fourth family unit member, our son, was working for a wonderful couple inland, Gilly and Dave, pulling down a rather large shed! There can’t be many things that appeal more to menfolk than demolition! My other two menfolk and I slept soundly in the holiday home of yet another lovely friend, a super pal who has offered, on more than one occasion, to lobby the French judiciary by wearing a sandwich-board bearing words to the effect, ‘Justice for the Hobo Family’, whilst traipsing the main streets of Paris! This might present as being a tad unlikely to happen, but, believe me, that is not the case where this straight as a flying arrow friend is concerned!!

Anyway, during our few days of separation, an urgent request for pet/house sitters came our way, from a friend who lives on the outskirts of Civray. The super lady who contacted us, and who will remain anonymous, has much greater need than ours at this time. We still have the keys to the Gers property of our friends who live in the UK – we had only envisaged being away for 5 days, 6 days maximum with travelling, and we also needed to get to the Cantal to tackle the issue of having no French Income Tax Declaration documents, yet again! But, to reiterate, our friend’s need is more pressing than ours. So, we decided to drop off our two youngest family members to start the pet/house sit, Tom and I then planned to travel down to the Cantal to engage in this year’s inevitable battle with the bureaucrats! From there, Tom would drop me back at the pet/house sit to join our lads, and he would continue down to the Gers, returning to Civray to collect our lads and me in a couple of weeks. 

Good planning – not! Temperatures on the Atlantic coast barely crawled out of single figures; other than on the Tuesday afternoon, the weather was persistently cold and wet, biting winds chewed through our lightweight clothing, it was a really damp, icy, miserable week! The highlights were super lunches with Gilly and Dave, and with our lovely friends, Sue, Tchica and Elmo aka El Nino! At least we felt normal, not at all like hobos! In fact, all round, we were pampered – we appreciated that more than words can ever say.

Sadly, Tom’s breathing became more laboured as the days passed, and we knew he was fighting yet another severe chest infection come the day that we travelled to collect our son. Despite the many inhalers, the antibiotics, the steroids, the nebuliser that provides a limited period of time pumping oxygen into his lungs, Tom really does need better medical care and a stable lifestyle. We are so hopeful that 2012 will see an end to our years as hobos living in France. But, we fear we still have more mountains to climb before we even get a sniff of justice!

So, tomorrow, Tom will visit a local doctor and, once again, will be put back on his feet – for a little while at least, Bless him. The Cantal bureaucrats will just have to wait. Voila!

However, while we were off-line, an email came in from our friend and former neighbour, Madame ZC, I picked it up yesterday. It appears that the cadastre has been true to the word he gave in November 2010 – our hairdressing locataire (who is, and always has been, without a tenancy contract) has submitted her Notice of intention to quit our house that’s not our home!

To recap – after continuously querying the annual Tax Foncier cost, we were advised by letter sent from the Cadastral in 2010 that the property has always been, and will always be, residential only, due to it’s proximity to the village Church. The cadastre further advised us that both locataires, ie Monsieur C and the hairdresser, must find alternative accommodation/business premises, and the Cadastral would, as a matter of legal necessity, enforce that requirement.

Well, it has taken sixteen months, but, it appears that it’s now ‘one virtually down, one more to go’!

Do we envisage problems? Yes, we do, this is France! The hairdresser owes just under €4,000 for unpaid water bills. The Tresor Public has demanded that we must pay the unpaid bills, we have refused to pay; we advised the Tresor Public to cut off the water supply if the bills remained outstanding. The situation has been at a stalemate level for some considerable time.

If the hairdresser moves out of the property without paying her unpaid water rates, the onus of responsibility for payment of those unpaid bills legally falls on Tom and me – despite the fact that the hairdresser should not have been operating her business in our property, she has never had a rental lease or any kind of contract with us. We didn’t even know she existed until months after we purchased the property – the sellers, the notaire, the Immobilier, the former hairdresser, all had been aware of her impending takeover of the hairdressing business. Nobody informed us, we were told, by the Immobilier, the notaire and the original hairdresser, that the hairdressing business would be closed at the end of the 9 years commercial lease period in December 2007. We were given copy of an Attestation that confirmed what we were told. 

Madame ZC has advised us that the hairdresser actually had her Notice delivered by l’huissier (a French bailiff), a service for which she would have been required to pay. In fact, all the hairdresser needed to do was to send a Registered letter to Tom and me, and sending the letter to our house that’s not a home would have been legally considered as good enough! Tenants have virtually all the rights here in France, landlords (willing or not!) have very few rights. Certainly, a tenant who does not give Notice is very unlikely to be pursued, it is too costly in both time, effort and money!

Why has the hairdresser gone to time, trouble and expense to notify us, via l’huissier, that she is vacating? Well, we may be exhibiting classic signs of paranoia – that wouldn’t surprise me, but we honestly believe the hairdresser’s action heralds more trouble to come! I will be speaking with l’huissier tomorrow, for as long as my mobile credit lasts, after Tom has been seen by a doctor.

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Pension? What Pension?

Against a fair few odds, I think, family and I had watched my 60th birthday roll in at the beginning of October 2009. Obviously, it was a low key celebration, and, to be honest, having received no birthday cards from family in the UK – a parcel of cards was en route from Champagnac, but it didn’t arrive until several days after my birthday – I was feeling rather quiet. Tom and I had also celebrated our Silver Wedding Anniversary just days before. 2009 will forever be known by us as the celebrations year that wasn’t!

However, by March 2010, I was still not receiving my pensions, and the rest of our savings were gushing away like water out of a broken pipe! I had applied for my pensions in June 2009. Not receiving any acknowledgement by August 2009, as I had requested, I wrote to enquire if that large brown envelope had arrived. I heard nothing, so I telephoned Newcastle. The large brown envelope had not been received! “Complete it on-line.” advised the very pleasant lass on the other end of the phone. I tried three times using the on-line service, without success, my application just wasn’t accepted, so I downloaded the documents and tried again. It was fortunate that I had an extra copy each of my Birth Certificate and Tom’s and my Marriage Certificate.

By the end of October 2009, I still had not received acknowledgement, so I telephoned Newcastle yet again and spoke with another pleasant lass. Once more, I was advised that the large brown envelope had not arrived. I then had to wait for more copies of Birth Certificate and Marriage Certificate, before I could re-apply for my pensions.

At the end of January 2010, Tom physically took the next big brown envelope filled with documents to a JobCentre Plus near his youngest brother’s home in London! Incredibly, when I telephoned towards the end of March, having not received an acknowledgement, a very pleasant lass advised me that my pensions application, and formal documents, had indeed arrived on her desk, but they had then “been misplaced.”!

By that time, I was feeling rather upset by the fiasco, and I contacted the office of (then) MEP Caroline Lucas. Her PA was horrified and told me she would pass all details to Caroline within 24 hours – Caroline Lucas was, at that time, preparing to represent the Green Party at the forthcoming General Election, and she was only days away from stepping down as an MEP in order to become an MP/Leader of the Green Party for England and Wales. I have never voted for the Green Party, yet, Caroline Lucas took up the fight for my pensions – and, whether the threat alone was enough, I don’t know, but Newcastle went into overdrive and I received my pensions backlog within days! Touch wood, my pensions have continued to arrive in the UK bank account every four weeks since then. But, it was a very close shave!

At this point, I would just like to acknowledge the unconditional help, support and kindness of two close friends, ie Diane and Natalie; without them, food and medication would have been very scarce during two weeks, specifically! The words, ‘thank you’, are never enough, but those two little words come from the hearts of family and me.

Buoyed up and in fighting mode, I emailed our avocat, Alexandra, and I asked her if she would please ‘look over’ our application to the European Court of Human Rights, before I posted it to Strasbourg. By the beginning of June, we had not received a response, and we never did receive a response! I posted the application.

A few days later, we received a brief notice from the ECHR, Strasbourg, to say our application had been filed at the Court on 10th June 2010, Tom’s 64th birthday.

 

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The Second Judgement

Throughout 2009, family and I concentrated on pet/house sitting, moving around France with very few breaks whereby we would have needed to return to living in the tent for long periods. We maintained contact with Alexandra, the avocat who had taken on Julia’s case-load whilst that lovely woman fought for her life with her family constantly by her side. During our initial telephone ‘meeting’, Alexandra laughed when I explained to her that I could not guarantee picking up my emails on a set day. She just did not believe that we were living in a tent between ‘sits’.

I’m fairly certain that, at that point, Alexandra considered me to be, either, paranoid, or, totally up the wall! But, she had spoken with Julia before our second telephone ‘meeting’, and Alexandra commenced the call with these words, “I am so very sorry, Christine, I thought you were joking. Julia has explained to me about how you and your family must live until we win the judgement you need.”

Several weeks after that second telephone conversation, we received a credit from the avocats’ offices in Toulouse, we were no longer required to pay the last facture that was sent to us by Monsieur MA before he was dismissed by Julia.

Justice!

However, we did need to find a further payment for the Avoué (barrister). In French law, the presenting avocat must have a Cabinet, or Practice, within the Department where the Case will be heard. Our Case was being heard in Department 15, ie the Cantal. Due to the fact that we could not find an avocat in the Cantal who could speak English, indeed, we were advised by our local l’Huissier (Court Bailiff) that an English-speaking avocat did not exist in the Cantal, we had to look further afield right from the onset. Hence, we had found Julia’s Cabinet in Toulouse in the Haute-Garonne (31), via the Internet, and we were required to fund the cost of an Avoué to present our Case in the Cantal, every time it was heard.

A Case may only need to be heard once by the justices, but, as it was with our Case, the justices required to hear sections of the Case on different days, three days in total! The set-up can add thousands of euros to the costs of the Case, and Monsieur MA should have explained that to us when we first made contact with him. He didn’t do that, but, at the end of the day, it would not have made any difference if he had told us we would be paying for two avocats. I have clarified the processes in the event of anybody else needing to know. It can present as a rather large shock if the set-up comes as a surprise!

Two weeks before Christmas 2009, Alexandra and I spoke on the telephone for the last time prior to our Appeal hearing date, everything was ready. The sellers’ avocat had apparently attempted to stall for more time, but the Court had rejected that request. Alexandra confirmed that Julia had worked very hard on putting all the evidence together, in order that the Judge would see at virtually a glance that we had overwhelming evidence to prove the sellers’ fraud. Alexandra was upbeat, she was confident, we relaxed a little and started to look forward to Christmas.

Late in the afternoon, on 18th December 2009, Alexandra telephoned us, we were pet/house sitting for good friends, Diane and Brian, near Les Eyzies in the Dordogne. Alexandra was audibly shocked and angry, but she told us without hesitation, the sellers’ fraud had been recognised by the Tribunal, the Judge had called Monsieur and Madame T “arrogant”, but our Appeal had been rejected.

 

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Money Flowing Like Water

Just before we headed back to the Dordogne, Tom and I travelled to Champagnac to collect our accumulated mail from our good friend and former neighbour, Madame ZC. As we pulled in outside our house that can never be our home, several neighbours were standing, chatting, in the Place de l’Eglise, they looked towards us as we left the car. Within seconds, they had all joined us and were talking ten to the dozen, shaking hands, kissing us on both cheeks, as we struggled to keep up with their excited questions. Eventually, our former next-door-but-one neighbour, Madame ML, a retired Moulin Rouge dancer who had retired many years before to the commune of her birth, Champagnac, from Paris, took control and politely asked us if we had returned to stay, and had we won our fight for justice against “the people who have treated you shamefully”. Briefly, with Madame ML translating the more complex aspects of the French language, we clarified our current position to the dozen or so villagers who were clustered around us, and who were listening intently. Each and every face dropped and they became still and silent as we spoke. Then, gently patting Tom and me on our shoulders, kissing our cheeks again, they all wished us good luck and started to walk away.

Suddenly, Madame ML, who must be in her late 80’s, possibly older, slowly walked back to us, hugged us both and told us, “You are very strong. You are strong like la résistence, you will win. Have faith in your family strength.” That was very encouraging for us, especially during the months to come!

There was a lot of mail for us to open. But, we recognised a Toulouse postmark on an envelope, and we opened that envelope first. Inside, there was a neatly worded facture (a bill) for over €4,000, the anticipated cost of the forthcoming Appeal hearing. Tom and I were stunned, we had already paid that amount towards the Appeal, to Monsieur MA months before. I telephoned Julia’s office and spoke with the office secretary, she politely advised me that Julia was in hospital but she would ask Alexandra to contact me as soon as possible, hopefully, later that same day. We were given to understand that Alexandra was our replacement avocat, in view of Julia’s severe health issues.

Somewhat reluctantly, we opened all the other envelopes – Foncier and d’Habitation property taxes, water rates, Social Charges! A total in excess of €3,500.

Water rates of over €1,000? Yes, water rates payable by the hairdresser, but the hairdresser had refused to pay for the water she used, because we would not sign her Lease Contract!

Social Charges? Yes, because our locataires were paying rent – not to us, because we refused to receive or acknowledge payment of rent, as we had been advised by Monsieur MA. The rent payments were received directly at the local Trésor Public (Council Tax Office), to pay the annual property taxes. Both rents had apparently never been increased since the late 1990’s when Madame T had initially started renting out parts of the house, so the monthly rents were, in Monsieur MA’s words, ‘Little peanuts, just enough to pay the annual taxes for the property, if they do not increase too much before your Case is resolved.’

Taxe d’Habitation? Tom was 63 years old, and we didn’t (couldn’t!) live in the property. That was apparently of no relevance, because the house was considered to be our maison secondaire (holiday home), our tent was considered to be our main home, and we were considered to be rolling in money because we had “two homes in France”! The facture was for the difference between what had been paid via rent and what the Trésor Public estimated was still owed from the previous year’s facture!

Tax Foncier? Yes, the majority of us must pay that property tax. But, the facture was for the difference between…yes, as above!

It was obvious that Monsieur MA had not done with our money as we had instructed, and entrusted, he had just banked it for himself, and for the new business venture he has since started as an avocat!

It took the lion’s share of the rest of 2009, plus all of 2010, plus the first half of 2011, to prove we did not owe the money demanded in the envelopes that we opened that day. Well, we’re still battling over the water rates facture that now stands at €1,900, and is still rising, despite Tom and I formally requesting that the water supply to the building be turned off!

 

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Mountains And The First Judgement

Following the ‘stolen teaspoons’ fiasco, we headed for Nice and the possibility of a pitch on a site that remained open throughout twelve months of the year. We were thinking about Christmas, wondering how we could celebrate Christmas in a tent with a ‘hobo’ cooker! We were also thinking about our family in the UK. By that time, our youngest grandchild, born in the UK in August 2007, had come through various life-saving treatments, but her condition still gave cause for concern about her future development. Her mum and dad were under constant pressure and, for the first time ever, I could not be there for one of my kids. Nobody will ever know how I felt during that dreadful period, I was torn apart by the need to ‘be there’ with family on both sides of The Pond. When people mention the word ‘compensation’ to me, I know they are referring to money. No amount of money could ever compensate for what we have suffered, that applies to our entire family living in two countries.

Earlier in the year, I had become a member of an on-line Francophile forum. Whenever possible, I would visit an internet café and keep abreast of the news for the British community living in France. Our telephone was still connected at the house, and I would spend a couple of hours on the forum when we went to collect our mail. The forum was ideal for locating camping sites that would remain open the year round. I also made time to offer other forum members information when I was on-line.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the camping site near Nice, that should have been open, we found it closed with an à vendre (for sale) notice at the entrance. The forum had not been very helpful on that occasion! So, we headed inland. I was the GPS and, usually, my map-reading skills are very good, but, not that day! We headed up-country from Nice, aiming to reach Villars by late afternoon, where we knew we could pitch the tent for one night on a commune camping site that offered space, fresh water and toilet facilities. Somewhere along the route, we took a wrong turning and strayed off course.

The terrain assumed an undulating form, then the hills became very large hills, until they turned into mountains! We were in the foothills of the Alps between France and the Italian border, on a road that was one way only! The road back to the coast, to Monaco, was some 500 metres below us. Solid mountain to the right, a sheer drop to the left, I was mortified, I’m petrified of heights and that was not a wide road! Kilometre after kilometre, every time we rounded a section of jutting cliff face, the road seeming to hang off the edge of the rock, I hoped to see flat land in front of us. Instead, there was just another purple mountain, taller and more heavily snow-laden than the one we were on. Several hours later, a road sign took us away from the Alps and back down-country to Gap. That’s when we added our jerry can of petrol to the tank! That night, we slept in the car in an aire de repos (equivalent to a lay-be with a picnic area and shower facilities). We were shattered, and Tom, our only driver, was exhausted to the point where his face was grey and his eyes were red-rimmed.

We spent the next three weeks moving from camping site to camping site, spending occasional nights in one or another of the many aire de repos facilities that are widespread throughout France. One day, we found ourselves on the outskirts of the village where Brad Pitt and his family lived, I spent at least twenty minutes with my nose pressed against the cold car window, hoping for a glimpse. No such luck!

We returned to the house very early one morning in December, on the day of the Tribunal, to wait for the telephone call giving us the justices’ decision. We waited all day, but that call didn’t arrive. We stayed in the home of a French friend in the village for a week. The house was tiny, and we were obviously over-crowding the home of our friend, although, she never gave any indication of being unhappy about it. On the seventh day, I telephoned Monsieur MA to politely demand the verdict. Taken by surprise, he told me, “The justices did not find in your favour, and you must pay €1,000 compensation to Monsieur and Madame T. There will also be Court fees to pay, and my final bill will be there after Christmas, to give you time to pay. But, I think you should Appeal. I will send the documents to you by post. L’Huissier (the Court Bailiff) will bring you the Tribunal’s Judgement document.”

We couldn’t even cry, we were stunned. We just hugged each other closely together against the cruelty and the injustice of it all.

 

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People

Different people respond or react in different ways when life suddenly turns turtle for themselves, for loved ones, or for friends. Our family and friends were no different when we told them our house in France could never be our home. But, I think the worst parts of the responses and reactions have probably been associated with the sheer disbelief that we have met since August/September 2007. In all honesty, I can’t blame anyone for not believing what has happened to us during that time. I can’t blame anyone for not believing the difficulties we have faced during our fight for justice in France. It is a fact that nobody could ever have envisaged how we would be living now, compared with how we lived our lives in the UK before we moved to France.

I digressed because I am now receiving stunned messages from family and friends who, understandably, have not realised, probably have not believed, just how serious our situation has been throughout the past 4 years and 6 months. In simple terms, it must have seemed incredible, ridiculous, unbelievable and beyond all comprehension. But, for each and every paragraph I write, there is a formal document to confirm the content of each paragraph.

A few days after our initial conversation with Monsieur MA, avocat, the resident locataire, Monsieur C, sent  a formal, registered letter to Tom and me. In the letter, Monsieur C refused, point blank, to allow any repairs or restoration works to be carried out on any part of the property that was rented to him. He also referred to our ‘family’s dream’ becoming our ‘nightmare’. What a charmless person!

I telephoned Monsieur MA and was able to speak with him immediately, his cheerful greeting was confirmation that we did, indeed, have a vice caché Case against our sellers. I asked if our property insurances policy would cover the cost of the legal fees, Monsieur MA replied that we were not covered under the policy. Tom and I had €50,000 set aside in our French Bank account to pay for the restoration and conversion works, €10,000 more than our architect had quoted. We also had £25,000 savings stored in our UK Bank account, the rest of our life savings. I asked Monsieur MA for a ballpark figure for the cost of the proceedings, his reply was €4,000 to €6,000. I quickly explained to Tom and he immediately agreed that we should proceed.

Monsieur MA was totally incorrect. To date, the proceedings, other expenses incurred due to French law, the extra costs associated with owning one property and having to live in other properties, plus the expense of having to constantly move around France, in addition to having to pay in full for all medical treatment, has cost in excess of €55,000. Our remaining life savings, plus £5,000 loaned to us by our eldest son, plus £1,200 jointly loaned to us by my sister and my cousin to pay towards my breast cancer and cardiac issues, well, that little lot just saw us through the three years until my pensions kicked in and started being paid! It took a little under eight months for DWP to finally start paying my pensions, that was after I had contacted an MEP about the delay. The MEP (then) was Caroline Lucas, she is now the Green Party Leader, a wonderful, caring person.

Monsieur MA had some bad news for us, though, we could not undertake any works on the property during the proceedings, but any existing works Contracts would have to be honoured, in French law, and the cost would be claimed from the sellers in due course. So, we paid Monsieur MA’s initial bill, he thanked us; we paid the architect’s bill, he thanked us; we paid the double-glazing guy – the new windows and external doors had already been ordered – he thanked us; we had paid for other materials up-front and we gathered all the receipts together.

But, temporary repairs on the toilet and other plumbing requirements gave up the ghost, the plumber was unable to carry out further repairs and we weren’t permitted, in French law, to have new plumbing. The electrical installations that would have been entirely replaced under our ownership, were suddenly considered by EDF to be ‘dangerous’, but we weren’t permitted, in French law, to have a re-wire. Yet, it took EDF over three years to disconnect the meters, so we had to keep paying Standing Charges until the meters were eventually disconnected! People, eh?

Oh, and Monsieur MA was (for want of other words and terminology) incorrect, our legal costs would have been covered by our insurance Policy – if Monsieur MA had bothered to contact the agent! Some people are just not thorough. However, we didn’t actually discover that little gem until over a year later.

Bottom line – we had to move out of the property.

 

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The Plot Thickens

Monsieur MA, the avocat, had patiently listened as we told him everything. I asked him if our property insurance policy might cover us for payment of any legal fees, he said he would look at our policy and let us know. In the meantime, we were to send all relevant documents to him, he would assess and let us know if we had a case for claiming back our money and moving on. Within an hour, we were standing at the photocopier in the village La Poste copying some 60+ documents. The originals had to be sent to Monsieur MA, but we kept copies, as you do! The documents were posted to Monsieur MA, we have never seen them since.

We crossed the road between La Poste and our property, heading back – couldn’t look at the house, we both felt sick. As we approached the front door, Madame A, the hairdresser, called us into the shop, she looked worried. Madame A congratulated us on our purchase and asked us if we had been informed about her planned departure in December. We confirmed that we had been informed, but she still looked worried. She then asked us if we had been informed about the sale of her business. Tom and I just shook our heads, I asked Madame A how the sale of her business was relevant to us. She then told us she had sold her rental Lease to another hairdresser who would be working with her from late October until the hand-over planned for December; she added that she had informed the Immo months before, ie before we paid the purchase deposit for the house.

I asked Madame A for a copy of the Contract between her and her Lease buyer, she immediately went into the back of the shop, took a document from a filing cabinet and handed it to me. It was an Attestation, and the sale had been agreed by the proprietor, Madame T, aka the female half of our sellers, around the date when we had made our formal offer to buy the property. I pointed out to Madame A that an Attestation is not a Contract of Sale. She nodded and explained that the Contract was held by the notaire. I asked her for the notaire’s contact details, she wrote down the information – her acting notaire was the same notaire who had conducted our property purchase! With great difficulty, Tom and I thanked Madame A and returned to the telephone to contact avocat Monsieur MA, he was out of the office. We posted a copy of Madame A’s Attestation to the avocat.

Later that day, our architect, Monsieur G, contacted us and asked if we could visit his office before 5pm, if convenient. We confirmed we would be there by 4:30pm, wondering if something else was going to slap us in the face before bedtime! Not a bad guess, as things turned out! Reality of life!

Architect, Monsieur G, confided to us about his long association with the Immo, they had even gone to school together. He also cautioned us about the Immo’s ‘less than honest business style’. Apparently, the Immo had contacted Monsieur G that morning, by telephone, and had asked if we intended to continue with the renovation works. Monsieur G told us he had made clear to the Immo that it was not his business to know anything about our intentions or expectations. Monsieur G then made us coffee and we told him the entire story to that date. He told us he was not at all surprised, pointed out certain facts about the commissioned works (I will clarify later) and offered his full support. We gratefully accepted that offer.

Monsieur G eventually offered hard evidence to support us for two Tribunal (Court) hearings spanning 2+ years. His documentary evidence was not presented to the first Tribunal, that was due to Monsieur MA and his incompetence – incompetence that led to him being dismissed by his Boss. But, that’s another story! Monsieur G’s hard evidence was largely ignored by the Appeal Court in December 2009.

 

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