Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Elisa Mari, Pitt Law '10, files from Athens:
Lately it has been more of a hassle and more crowded than usual at the Land Registry Office (Ypothikofilakeio). A title search in Greece consists of going through the old hand written volumes of the registries to check for title, mortgages, liens, etc. all listed under the owner's last name. All that is going to change though, as a whole new land registry system (Ktimatologeio) is being implemented. The property will now be registered under lot number and address, rather than by the owner's name. Everyone who owns property must register it under the new system. That is why the Land Registry Office has suddenly become packed daily with lines out the door.
Property owners have until September 30th to declare their property to the Ktimatologeio, while Greeks living abroad or foreign residents who own property in Greece have until December 30th to register their property. It is calculated that 3.1 million stremma (one stremma is 1,000 square meters) will be recorded and this will include the property of 2/3 of the population.
While a land registry system where the information is organized under lot number and address rather than owner's name is beneficial everywhere, it is especially crucial in Greece. Much of the property here is jointly owned by multiple family members. In fact when it comes to inheritance rights and the division of property, the Greek Civil Code stipulates that all children (with only some extreme exceptions) have a forced share of an estate. Therefore, regardless of what a parent decides in his/her will, a child cannot be disinherited and a portion of the property or money is theirs by law.
Even if it were not the law, the Greek mentality is to keep everything in the family and have everyone own everything together. It is not uncommon therefore to find a small house in a village or a plot of land that is owned by five siblings, some of whom might not even live in Greece anymore. It rarely seems to cross anyone's mind that this is a recipe for disaster. Houses are left abandoned and fall into disrepair because none of the siblings can agree with the others on how to manage the property, and the loving family that wanted to own everything together ends up in bitter feuds over property ownership. In fact, the majority of the property cases that the office I'm working at deals with concern cleaning up title between relatives who each claim a percentage of the total ownership of a property. It is a refreshing, but rare, occurrence when one of our clients actually has full title in fee simple absolute. In addition, ownership by adverse possession is common. The typical case arises when the actual title holder is living abroad and has left the property in the hands of relatives who assure him that they are "taking care" of the property until the owner's return.
While the new land registry system won't solve these problems, it will certainly make tracking down title easier and clarify who owns what. As for the rest, that's a social issue and from the way it seems it is not likely to change anytime soon.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Carrie Cecil, Pitt Law '10, files from Kiev:
Ukraine is a democracy still in its infancy. Independence from the former Soviet Union was declared in 1991, and the Constitution was adopted in 1996. After declaring independence, Ukraine struggled to decide whether legally the country would adopt policies bringing it closer to the rest of Europe or policies tying it to Russia. This struggle to find a unified approach led - and continues to lead - to the adoption of often inadequate and continually changing legislation. Today, many laws adopted prior to independence are still at work, albeit in amended versions. The Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian Parliament) is still working to pass foundational laws, such as the new labor code, which is currently under debate (the current code was passed in 1971).
The lingering Soviet influence on Ukraine's legal system manifests itself in several ways. Most prominent are the laws in use that were passed prior to independence. These laws in large part have been amended to "patch holes," but there remain differing philosophies between the laws passed prior to 1991 and those since passed. As time passes and the Verkhovna Rada adopts new laws, the influence will decrease, resulting in increasing effectiveness of the legal system.
The effects of Soviet influence are just as apparent in the practice of law in Ukraine as it is in the formation of law. At independence, a bar association and law firms did not exist because they were not necessary under the Soviet system. Although it is somewhat amusing that one Ukrainian law firm posts "One of the Oldest Law Firms in Ukraine since 1991" on its website, it is certainly true. At this point, attorneys in Ukraine are concerned with discovering the law currently on the books and predicting the likelihood that the law will remain unchanged as opposed to providing an analysis of what the law actually means.
As Ukrainian legislation develops and moves further away from laws passed before independence, the practice of law will develop as well. Until then, attorneys will be evaluating which laws are enforced, which laws are not, and which laws are likely to remain unchanged. They will also make sure to include repeated cautions to clients that their analysis is merely a prediction and other possibilities can occur due to how quickly the law can change.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
JURIST Staffer Eric Linge, Pitt Law '10, from Addis Ababa...
The Economics of Ethiopian Growth from a legal professional's perspective
Do you have an addiction? Do you even know you have an addiction? As American lawyers, we're addicted to easy and fast Internet, and our relied-upon webpages are our enablers: Westlaw, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and every PDF document you want to read. These pages pop up quickly when clicked in the U.S., but in Ethiopia even at a government ministry with some of the fastest Internet in the country a lawyer might as well be back to the days of 28.8 Kbps. With all their graphics and frames, these relied-upon webpages are not designed for such slow connections.
With an IMF projected growth rate of 8.4% for 2008, Ethiopia is supposedly the fastest-growing non-oil economy in Africa. But when I'm sitting at my desk, waiting for pages to load and documents to download, I am unable to produce as much in a day as I could in the U.S. And it's not just me, it's law students, lawyers, judges, and the entire legal profession, who cannot fully utilize the wealth of legal information held online. And because the government censors webpages that could portray it in a negative light, many local news sites and blogs are unavailable.
Also hampering a day's work are blackouts. The capital, Addis Ababa, is on a schedule of rolling blackouts where each building has power only four days a week though government buildings always have power.
The government adamantly maintains a monopoly on the telecommunications sector, which includes all Internet services. Ethiopia's accession to the WTO could potentially stall as the government refuses to liberalize telecoms. Of course the WTO would argue that liberalizing the sector would improve its service; webpages would load faster. Liberalizing telecoms, however, could see the government forfeiting its ability to censor the Web.
With these impediments to workers' productivity, can Ethiopia maintain its fast rate of growth? Robert Solow won the 1987 Nobel Prize in economics for his work toward developing the Solow Growth Model, which broadly (and arguably, too simplistically) explains countries' economic growth by three independent variables: size of labor force, amount of capital invested (into the means of production), and productivity (technology or other factors that aid each worker to produce more output with his or her time).
Eventually a country mobilizes its entire labor force all able-bodied men and women are working. And eventually so much capital has been invested that to invest more would no longer increase output. In other words, a state of diminishing returns has been reached. So the only variable left to drive economic growth in the long run is productivity.
Witness in the 1990s the United States, a mature economy with a fully mobilized labor force and thoroughly developed means of production. The economy grew at remarkably high rates for a remarkably sustained period of time. Amazing and repeated breakthroughs in information technology allowed each U.S. worker to produce more in his day than he could before he had the technology.
Ethiopia is not a mature economy. It is a least-developed country. It has a large number of able-bodied men and women who are available and anxious to work. It has few factories, and there is capacity and desire for more capital investment. Yet its ineffective Internet connections and rolling blackouts hamper its productivity growth. Ethiopia will continue to grow economically, but as productivity is hampered, so will be its rate of growth.
Productivity could also be improved through the strengthening of contract law. Enforcement and completion of contracts is uneven for Ethiopians and foreign investors alike. But perhaps this is the topic for another Dateline entry.
Thursday, June 05, 2008
Elisa Mari, Pitt Law '10, files from Athens:
Tuesday morning at 7:30 am, Tasos Aliferis, the Mayor of Tilos - a small Greek island in the eastern Aegean - formally married two homosexual couples. The first couple to get married at dawn were gay, the second couple was lesbian. The whole ceremony happened without any publicity or debate preceding the event, but now all of Greece is debating the social and legal issues surrounding the marriages.
The Greek Ministry of Justice was quick to condemn the marriages as legally baseless. Many lawyers and lay people view the marriages as a sham and say that the Mayor and the couples who got married were just playing theater.
The public prosecutor of the Areos Pagos, the Supreme Court of Greece, has ordered the Mayor not to officially register the marriage certificates with the competent authority, stating that there is no legal base to support same-sex marriage. In addition, the Minister of Justice has said as far as the State is concerned, attempts at civil (i.e. non-religious) marriages between homosexuals are illegal and these specific "marriages" have no valid base in Greek law.
On Wednesday, the Mayor was called to give an account before the court of Rhodes for his actions and is now facing charges for failure to perform his duty as mayor (at the hearing on Wednesday, the court decided not to hear the Mayor's case at that moment, and kept him waiting as they are still reviewing his case). As the Mayor of Athens commented, it is not a mayor's role to make law, or state what the law is - his role is simply to enforce the existing law. But the Mayor of Tilos has refused to take back the marriage certificates, stating that by performing the wedding ceremonies, he was merely upholding the law, the Greek Constitution as well as the Charter of the UN.
The Greek Constitution itself defines marriage to be between two individuals, and makes no specification that the union requires a man and a woman to be legal. Greek family law, which is similarly codified, also fails to mention same-sex marriage while prohibiting marriages between individuals of vertical relationship, i.e. direct descendants, and horizontal relation, i.e. siblings and cousins up to the fourth degree.
Lawyers debating the issue in the newspapers and on television are making the argument that the marriages are groundless because even if the Constitution and the Civil Code do not specifically prohibit same-sex marriage, at the time the law were written as well as today, it is generally understood in society that by definition marriage is obviously only for a man and a woman. Therefore the fact that there is no specific prohibition of homosexual marriage does not make that legal.
Those in favor of same-sex marriage view these marriages - legal or illegal as still to be determined - as a big step for gay and lesbian rights in Greece. Those opposed are confident that these marriages will be declared illegal and seen as isolated events in which the Mayor of Tilos overstepped his authority. In the end, it will be up to the courts to decide. And this is only the beginning of the issue. The next big question on everyone's mind is if homosexual couples are given the right to marry, will they also have the right to adopt children?
As for the Greek lawyers that I work with, the general consensus is that there doesn't seem to be any legal barrier in the Constitution or the Civil Code that would prohibit same-sex marriage in Greece. In addition, as they jokingly add, they are in favor of same-sex marriage if for no other reason than more marriages means an increase in inheritance issues and an eventual increase in divorces, which after all is good for business!
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
Carrie Cecil, Pitt Law '10, files from Kiev:
I've been in Kiev for a little over a week, and every day something new in the landscape amuses or intrigues me, ranging from the incredible amount of cranes all over the city due to the lack of effective zoning to the incredibly long escalators rising out of the subway stations that also function as bomb shelters.
Barrier-free accessibility for disabled persons has also piqued my interest.
In the United States, there are a large variety of laws and regulations mandating accessibility for disabled persons. These regulations and laws mandate tiny details such as the height of sinks in public restrooms or the angle at which a ramp must be constructed to allow access into buildings. When I arrived in Kiev, I quickly realized that Ukrainians in wheelchairs lack access to much of the transport system and many buildings. In addition, many of the sidewalks lack ramps for easy entry and exit and often require the use of steps to cross under major intersections. The terrain is often a combination of dilapidated concrete and dirt further acting as a barrier to movement around the city. There are some concrete rails constructed over some stairways leading into buildings and the subway stations, but these are constructed for mothers pushing baby carriages rather than those in wheelchairs. To be able to move around the city, disabled persons are dependent on family members or must call for public transport to pick them up at least 24 hours before the trip.
It's not that regulations promoting barrier-free access don't exist. They do. The problem is the result of a failure to enforce existing laws and regulations. There are no incentives for the construction business to provide barrier-free access and no penalties for failing to do so. Further, there continues to be a social stigma attached to disabled persons living in the Ukraine because in the former Soviet Union people with disabilities were mostly hidden from public view. Today, disabled persons are guaranteed equal rights by the Ukrainian Constitution and many receive meager government pensions. The problem is that most of the effective legislation regarding disabled persons in the Ukraine has to do with the awarding of pensions. These pensions are not enough to survive on and are awarded based on a classification system used in the former Soviet Union. The government has also created regulations promoting the employment of disabled persons, but companies avoid the regulations by paying them half of their salary to stay home instead of actually allowing them to work. The combination of barriers in the landscape and an inability to earn a living wage result in a seeming continuation of the Soviet system with disabled persons dependent on family members to care for them and still largely hidden from public view.
Monday, June 02, 2008
Aleksandra (Sasha) Williams, Pitt Law '10, files from Kiev:
The last five years have dramatically changed the appearance of Kiev, the fabled "Cradle of the Slavs". Always admired for its green parks and gardens, its sensible city structure, and its historical sites preservation efforts, the city has now joined the ranks of randomly designed post-Soviet urban nightmares. In part this is because the real estate market structure emerged practically overnight, amidst the remnants of the centralized Soviet land use regulations, in a place lacking any civic organizations, administrative agencies, independent objective media, or, as one activist put it, "the necessary evil of multitude of lawyers who can tie up money interests in miles of red tape." Therefore, as soon as the old government system collapsed and the new money arrived, Kiev responded with a grotesque building boom.
Soviet land use and development laws were based on the premise that land was owned by the government. After the demise of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited a few outdated regulations dealing mainly with agricultural and non-agricultural use distinctions. Initially, growth and development were not at the top of the Ukrainian legislative priority list. For example, the "Law for Property Rights Classification, Recording and Registration" was not passed until 2004. Related legislature generally encouraged unrestricted development: there were no uniform city planning and construction codes until 2005 and real estate sale proceeds were not taxed as personal income until 2007. Even when the planning code was adopted in 2005, it was enacted as a "model code" only, and compliance was left up to the developers. Zoning regulations remained focused on the agricultural and non-agricultural use.
As a result, high-rise office buildings sprung up in low-slung quiet residential neighborhoods and park zones, and new residential buildings were constructed without any regard to the existing infrastructure. One of the examples of such chaos is the fate of a piece of land located near the downtown area. Initially the land belonged to the state, but was used by a hospital. Before the hospital was able to officially claim and register the land, the lot was given to the Orthodox Church by a politician, in fulfillment of his campaign promise to improve "morality and piety of the nation." Again, ownership was never recorded, but a church was built. It is unclear whether morality and piety were improved, but it is certain that the price of land in Kiev now exceeds $100,000.00 dollars per "sotka" (100 square meters). Therefore, the current administration plans to level the church and sell the land to a developer who proposed to use the site for an office building.
Public protests caused by similar situations encouraged the local and national government to at least take a look at the building boom. In 2006, the Kiev City Administration imposed an 18 month freeze on new development sites and a temporary moratorium on high rise construction. At the same time Ministry of Construction, Architecture and Housing Economy relaxed its remodeling requirements to encourage reconstruction of already existing buildings. However, in practice, even these regulations are frequently skirted or disregarded. A well-connected developer can usually make a "mutually beneficial" deal with the administration, and, if there is no significant public opposition, the development goes forward. Therefore, until some substantial and enforceable law is implemented, Kiev might as well borrow West Virginia's "Open for Business" sign.
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