This morning the Third Section ECtHR handed down judgment in a rather strange case about disputed property at Ribas de Campos, north of Valladolid. The argument turned on double registration and the particular privileges of Roman Catholic bishops to register property. What follows is compiled from the press notice.
Sociedad Anónima del Ucieza v Spain  ECHR 1186 [French only] was a dispute over ownership of a medieval church. In 1978 the applicant company (SAdU) had purchased a plot of land at Ribas de Campos in which the church had formed an enclave and registered it in the land register. The land had belonged to the former Premonstratensian monastery of Santa Cruz de la Zarza. In December 1994 the Diocese of Palencia registered the same church in the land register in its own name. The entry was made on the basis of a certificate issued by the Diocese itself; and even though SAdU’s name appeared in the register as the owner of the land in question it was not told in advance about this new entry. Having been informed after the event, SAdU complained to the Diocese, which replied that the property had always belonged to it de facto. Under the Law of 2 September 1841 on the sale of church property, churches and cathedrals and their annexes were excluded from desamortización (sale of church lands).
SAdU’s claim in the domestic courts to cancel the registration of the church and its annexes by the Diocese were unsuccessful. The court of first instance noted that the plot of land and the buildings at issue had been the subject of laws about desamortización and had subsequently been auctioned in 1835 and 1841; but because the church had been a parish church before desamortización it had not been affected by the sale and had continued to function for as long as its physical state of repair had permitted. The court also pointed out that since the Code of Canon Law was applicable, the church could not have been acquired by SAdU through adverse possession because adverse possession could only be used in such a context for the benefit of ecclesiastical entities. Subsequent appeals were unsuccessful.
Before the Third Section, SAdU argued that
- it had been deprived of its right of appeal on points of law to the Supreme Court on unduly formalistic grounds, contrary to Article 6 ECHR (fair trial);
- it had been deprived of its property for no reason of public interest and without compensation under a law predating the Constitution, contrary to Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property); and
- the deprivation violated the principle of non-discrimination under Article 14 inasmuch as the Roman Catholic Church had been able to register the property in the land register on the basis of unjustified privileges.
The Spanish Supreme Court had declared SAdU’s appeal on points of law inadmissible, holding that the estimated value of the property at 600,000 euros was insufficient to contradict the initial description of the property as “invaluable”. The Supreme Court had concluded that SAdU had merely managed to establish that the sum at stake in the proceedings had exceeded the amount of 36,000 euros required for proceedings to be initiated but that it had not succeeded in demonstrating that the higher threshold for lodging an appeal on points of law based on the sum at stake had been reached. The Third Section held that this was not merely a problem of interpretation but, rather, an issue of interpreting a procedural requirement which had prevented the consideration of the merits of the case. This particularly strict interpretation of a procedural rule had unjustly deprived SAdU of its right of access to the court. There had therefore been a violation of Article 6 §1.
As to A1P1, despite its registration in 1979, the ownership rights claimed by SAdU had been rendered nugatory when the Diocese of Palencia managed, 16 years later, to register the same property because the new registration had deprived SAdU of its rights under the previous one. Spanish law provided that no other deed of property could be asserted against a deed entered in the land register and that the rights in rem included in the register were deemed to exist and to appertain to the holder of such rights. Moreover, under domestic law the ownership of unregistered property could only be registered by one of the means set out in the Mortgages Act, including that laid down in section 206 of the Act: the presentation of a certificate drawn up by the Diocesan Bishop. But the provisions of section 206 applied only where there had been no previous entry in the land register; and because the land had already been registered in 1979, the registration in the name of the Diocese in 1994 had entailed the loss of SAdU’s rights under the 1979 registration. The land registry official should have refused to register the church in the name of the Diocese because the mortgage regulations provided that officials could not allow two apparently conflicting entries for the same property.
The registration of the church in the name of the Diocese solely on the basis of the certificate issued by the Diocese itself had been arbitrary and more-or-less unforeseeable and had failed to provide SAdU with the basic procedural safeguards for defending its interests. The fact that SAdU had been unable to defend itself against the effect of the second registration made the second registration disproportionate in itself. The Court also found it surprising that a certificate issued by the Diocese should have had the same value as certificates issued by public officials and wondered why section 206 of the Mortgages Act referred only to diocesan bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, to the exclusion of representatives of other denominations.
The Court concluded that SAdU had been a victim of the exercise of the right of registration granted by the Roman Catholic Church’s internal legislation without any apparent justification and without the Diocese having mounted a challenge on the basis of its own asserted ownership rights when the property had been registered in 1979. Consequently, SAdU had borne an individual and excessive burden which could only have been legitimised by the possibility of effectively challenging the measures taken against it, taking into account the applicable provisions of the relevant law. There had therefore been a violation of A1P1.
SAdU’s complaint about unequal treatment had been sufficiently taken into account by the finding of a violation of A1P1 itself; and no separate issue arose under Article 14 taken in conjunction with A1P1.
On the rights and wrongs of allowing bishops of whatever denomination to issue conclusive certificates about ownership of church property we can have no view (being neither Spanish, specialists in property law nor bishops). What does surprise us, however, is that the secular authorities could have accepted without demur a second registration for the same piece of land which had the effect of overwriting the first one. Surely registration of title is supposed to do what it purports to do: to assure the landowner that the title is secure against all-comers.
They obviously haven’t seen Ronseal ads in Spain…