The recent Judgements of the Spanish Supreme Court rendered during the year just ended, 2015, have caused or may cause a tsunami which could ruin the timeshare industry as a result of the “pull factor” created by the interpretation of these Judgements and the application thereof by first instance courts and provincial courts, which has already started.
The doctrine contained in Supreme Court Judgement (SCJ) no. 774/2014 concerning the requirements to be met for the adaptation of timeshare systems in existence before the enactment of the Spanish Act 42/1998, and in SCJ 830/2015, handed down on the same date, regarding the requirements to be met by the subject of a timeshare contract (which, in addition, have both been promptly ratified by Judgements given during the same year so as to fulfil –and this is my personal opinion – the reiteration requirement necessary for Case Law to be considered a source of Law), certainly seem to indicate that the intention of the Supreme Court was to take strong action for the purpose of bringing order to a Sector plagued by a bad reputation it has failed to shake off, sometimes through fault of its own but more often than not due to a factual assumption that the consumer, whatever they say or do and even if all of it is contrary to true facts, actual events or their own actions, IS ALWAYS RIGHT.
In every consumer relationship, greater and more thorough diligence is always demanded from the trader in the fulfilment of its obligations simply because it has the upper hand over the consumer, but the consumer is also demanded to exercise their rights in good face and without abusing their own rights. Just as “bad faith traders” do exist and their dominant position allows them to take greater advantage of their position, bad consumers also exist, and not occasionally or only in isolated cases, but acting together, not only through non-profit organisations for the defence of their own interests, but also through other professionals and traders who use the means provided by the information society and the electronic networks for the obvious purpose of obtaining a personal gain.
Supreme Court Judgements 747/2014 and 830/2015 have filled with bewilderment timeshare resort promoters, companies providing tourism services to those resorts and virtually all the legal operators who, after fifteen years of what appeared to be a correct interpretation of Act 42/1998 of 15 December, have been surprised –if not overruled – by the Supreme Court with a new and, until that moment, almost exclusive interpretation of the requirements to be met for the adaptation of pre-existing systems or the extent of the requirements relating to the subject of the contract.
I have not entitled this opinion article “Timeshare Facing a Pull Factor” because of the existence of some dark conspiracy against this Sector, but to stress that such a “pull factor” does certainly exist, particularly as the possible claims to the courts of justice are being “marketed”.
The pull factor as such takes place when the doctrine established by the Supreme Court in a specific case (and it could not be different in this instance) is taken out of context and isolated and subsequently translated by for-profit operators (an activity which, other considerations aside, is currently lawful) in a simplistic, albeit not totally wrong, interpretation, outside the context of the specific case to which it relates, of the following doctrine:
A.- Doctrine initially contained in SCJ 747/2014 which, in my view, denies the possibility of adapting systems in existence before the enactment of Act 42/1998 by merely giving them public status, which was the form of adaptation used with virtually all timeshare resorts. The Supreme Court has thus established that the “transformation of pre-existing timeshare rights into in-rem or leasehold rights of rotational enjoyment according to the requirements of said Act” is the correct doctrinal interpretation of how adaptations must be performed.
B.- Doctrine contained in SCJ number 830/2015: “In the legal system established by Act 42/1998 of 15 December on rights of rotational enjoyment of holiday accommodation, failure by the contract to determine the unit which constitutes the subject thereof determines the nullity of such a contract, as provided for by Article 1.7 in relation to Article 9.1.3 of the said Act”.
This doctrinal line has been vulgarly, publicly and interestedly translated by trading and legal operators seeking to make a profit in the following statements:
• “Timeshare contracts entered into up to 2012 whose duration is in excess of 50 years are absolutely and radically null and void”.
• “Even if you have used the tourist resorts for 10, 15 or 20 years, you can recover all the money you paid – absolutely the full price you paid”.
• “You can also get back all the money you have paid every year as service fees even if the services have been provided to you”.
• “Additionally, you will not have to pay anything to the lawyers and legal representatives acting on your behalf in the Courts. This will be borne by the seller when they lose the case and, otherwise, your lawyers and legal representatives will not charge you anything”.
They obviously fail to mention that if the claimant loses the case, the claimant’s lawyers may not charge them anything but the Courts will, as a general legal principle, obligate them to pay the court costs and even the fees of the counterparty’s lawyers and legal representatives.
Who would, therefore, reject so many advantages when there is no downside?
It’s like the lottery without even having to pay for the ticket!
I believe it is necessary at this point to analyse whether, on the one hand, the above Case Law –treated as an axiom without the possibility of being disproved whatever the reason argued, however petty, irrelevant or even if based on a mere statement without having to prove anything relating to its truthfulness – can be applicable always or virtually always and in every case as proclaimed by the providers of free legal services or whether, as is my view, the aforementioned Case Law needs to be considered in the context of each specific case and in accordance with the Spanish substantive laws, in some cases, or with the law to which the contract is subject in other cases, without disregarding the fact that jurisdiction may lay with non-Spanish courts in many cases.
On the other hand, the –fundamentally economic and social – consequences of the promised universal lottery also need to be analysed.
In relation to the former, judgements have already been issued by provincial courts whose interpretation is that a brief paragraph from the Supreme Court Judgements may not be applied in every case disregarding the context of the court resolutions of the provincial courts themselves. By way of an example, Judgement 477/2015 rendered by the Provincial Court of Las Palmas, Canary Islands, on 27 November 2015, states that:
“As we have seen, the aforementioned SCJ does not resolve a similar situation to the case at hand (where the subject of the transfer is not timeshare rights but condominium) and is therefore not applicable. Consequently, this Court must stick to the criterion previously described in relation to the admissibility of maintaining the pre-existing system”.
I believe that this is the line along which the Instance and Appeal Courts will go when the moment comes in the proceeding to contest other issues which had somehow been taken for granted, to such an extent that they had not been argued by the parties and that, therefore, by virtue of the principle of consistency of judgements, these may not accept or reject matters not raised by the parties in assessing the general aspects of the cases.
And here could be the first flaw of the principle followed by the managers of free legal services who encourage the consumers simply to file claims, without any further consideration, through websites and advertisements saying that the court case is basically won beforehand and that the defendant trader will bear all the expenses and the court costs, as such court costs will be inevitably awarded against the consumer. They obviously omit and fail to mention, as aforesaid, that the claimant can be sentenced to pay the court costs if the court does not accept their claims.
Will the traders who are promoting free legal services be able to promise their clients that they will not lose their right, will not pay any court costs even if they lose the case and that they will not have to pay what they owe? I believe they will not, as they say nothing about these things but simply gloss over them and fail to give any undertakings.
This is the problem with assuring an outcome in the case of a judicial controversy which is to be resolved by an independent judge.
But we also mentioned that this organised pull factor can bring about other economic or social consequences, such as:
A huge increase in litigiousness.
An escalation of bankruptcy of tourism companies and resorts. Timeshare traders will be unable to reimburse the total price paid by virtue of the vast majority of the contracts entered into over the past 15 to 20 years, during which time accommodation services have been provided, employees have been hired, utilities paid, etc., if even the proportional share of the price of the right of occupation which relates to the time during which such right has been enjoyed would have to be reimbursed.
Loss of a very large number of jobs.
Loss of the right acquired by those timeshare users who are happy with their right of occupation and want to continue to use it rather than opt for the free lottery.
This may be taken to the limit in those cases where there is no promoter at this time and where the resort is directly managed by its members (consumers and users) through the management bodies appointed from their number, i.e. the General Meeting of Members and the Management Committee appointed by it. Will the claimants sue a promoter who ceased to exist years ago or will they sue the other members?
Therefore, earnestness and good faith is needed from the parties, including the providers of free legal services, the traders in the Sector and the consumers and users.
If the consumers must be demanded to act in good faith and to abstain from abusing their right, the traders –in relation to the past – should review their own situation and, where it was not correct, they will have to amend it, if possible through out-of-court procedures and solutions, and for the present and for the future adapt their commercial practices and their contractual documents rigorously and strictly according to the thorough legal rules, seeking to achieve the necessary training of the agents involved in the commercialisation process so that they understand that this is the time of consumers and users and that, consequently, they need to know and respect their legal rights and those which are inherent in a proper commercialisation process.
Francisco J Lizarza – Lizarza Abogados
Marbella, January the 11th, 2015