Partner and head of property litigation at Forsters LLP, London
I left university with a biology degree, which was very interesting to study but not a subject that I wanted to pursue as a career. I thought that the law would be intellectually challenging and a good use of the skills I had developed at university. It also offered a wide variety of career options.
I completed the GDL and LPC courses at the London College of Law and then joined Lewis Silkin as a trainee. This involved six months at a legal aid firm in Peckham, where I worked in the housing team. That gave me a taste for property litigation. I then followed this with seats in commercial litigation and property. The best part of the training was being given the opportunity to run my own caseload and deal with clients from the outset. It was a steep learning curve, but very stimulating and I am still in touch with my co-trainees. In fact, I married one of them!
Continuing as a full-time solicitor while raising a family was a difficult challenge. It required serious time management and a very supportive family. Technology is making this easier now and firms appear to be waking up to the fact that if they want to retain good solicitors they have to be more flexible.
It is the structure of property law that I like, and the way that it can be applied logically to facts to solve problems. This is particularly the case in the area of residential property litigation and enfranchisement. By developing an expertise it is possible to advise clients on the best solutions for their property needs, either on specific cases or longer-term on asset management. I also enjoy working within the property industry. It is diverse with a variety of sectors. This year I completed the charity cycle ride to the property conference MIPIM in Cannes with a group of property professionals, ranging from architects and planners to structural engineers and environmental lawyers. It was the perfect way to network with people in the property industry.
Dealing with large residential service charge disputes on behalf of a number of tenants can be very challenging. There are often competing factions in the building or long-running hostilities between leaseholders and their landlord. Keeping everyone focused on the legal issues is difficult.
There is a need for change and hopefully the changes will result in clearer, simpler enfranchisement processes…
Successfully appealing to the Supreme Court in Howard de Walden Estates v Aggio  3 WLR 244 is a career highlight. The case concerned the interpretation of the Leasehold Reform Housing and Urban Development Act 1993 and whether a person holding a head lease of a building comprising several flats could be a qualifying tenant and therefore entitled to a new long lease of a flat. We had lost at first instance and in the Court of Appeal, but the Supreme Court stayed the order for costs in the court below, so that our client was able to pursue his appeal and then allowed the appeal. After judgment was handed down in the Supreme Court the client treated us to lunch at the Ritz. The year was also memorable because it was then that I became a partner at Forsters LLP.
The Law Commission’s proposed introduction of a single simplified procedure and prescribed forms for all claims may help reduce the number of issues that come to court. Likewise, the proposal to extend the existing powers of the first-tier tribunal (property chamber) to allow it to deal with all disputes and issues in respect of enfranchisement should reduce costs. However, my concern is that the new system may run into the same problems. It does appear simpler to change the definition of ‘house’ and ‘flat’ to ‘residential unit’, but there was nothing more hotly contested than the definition of a ‘house’. The case law that has developed over the last 50 years has resolved that issue. Changing the definition will almost certainly lead to a resurgence of such disputes, at least initially. There is also concern in the industry about the proposed changes to the valuation methodology used in enfranchisement claims, and we can expect the larger estates to challenge any proposals that will significantly reduce premiums. What is clear, however, is that there is a need for change. Hopefully the changes will result in clearer, simpler enfranchisement processes for leaseholders, freeholders and practitioners alike.
When it comes to changes I would personally like to see within commercial or residential property litigation, where do I start? The Landlord and Tenant Act 1987 alone would take me a few pages! The Property Litigation Association does fantastic work in this area and is probably better placed to answer this.
Natasha Rees is a partner and head of property litigation at Forsters LLP, London