Twenty years ago a man killed his daughter and hacked her remains into 105 pieces. Would you buy the property?
AT FIRST the crime documentary was merely disquieting for Alan and Susan Sykes, as they settled down in their new home for a quiet night in front of the television. It became positively alarming when, in graphic detail, the programme recounted how a 13-year-old girl had been murdered and dismembered into more than 100 pieces.
And as the Channel 5 show Arrest and Trial unfolded it dawned on Mr and Mrs Sykes that the “house of horrors” in which the girl met such a brutal end was their own property. Now the couple are at the centre of a Court of Appeal test case that could have widespread ramifications for all property buyers.
The couple claim that they would never have bought the house in Wakefield if the vendors, James and Alison Taylor-Rose, had told them about the recent history of the £83,000 property.
The Sykes’s case in effect challenges the traditional legal principle of caveat emptor and the extent of the duty on sellers to disclose details about a property and its history.
It also raises questions about how much a vendor and the estate agent should have to declare about the “personal” aspects of a property before it goes on the market.
Mr and Mrs Sykes were so distressed about the history of their new home that they immediately put it back on the market. They took an £8,000 loss and are now pursuing damages.
They could not bear to live in the property where Dr Samson Perera, a dental biologist at Leeds University, had murdered his adopted daughter, Nilanthie.
Parts of the child’s body were hidden under the floorboards; others were secreted in pot plants and a coffee jar. Some were never found.
Tomorrow Mr and Mrs Sykes will seek to overturn a county court ruling by Judge Peter Langan that Mr and Mrs Taylor-Rose had not been obliged to disclose the murder which led to the conviction of Dr Perera in 1985.
They will argue that, apart from failing to tell them of the property’s grim history, they were also misled into entering into the purchase by an inaccurate answer given by the Taylor-Roses in standard replies to inquiries before exchange of contracts.
According to the original ruling by Judge Langan, the Taylor-Roses themselves bought the property in ingorance of its history after house-hunting in the Sandal area in the summer of 1998.
They did not meet the vendor at that time, a Mrs Silva. But their offer was accepted and the deal completed in September 1998.
At this stage, the judge said, the Taylor-Roses knew nothing about the murder and had no reason to believe that the house had an untoward history.
In March 1999, six months later, they received through their letter-box an anonymous note telling them about the house.
Mrs Taylor-Rose went to the solicitor who had acted for them in the purchase and he advised that Mrs Silva had been under no obligation to disclose the house’s history, and in turn, they would not be either, when they decided to sell.
The couple opted to stay put for the moment but in the autumn of the next year, 2000, they decided to put 16 Stillwell Drive on the market. The Sykeses made their offer, which was subsequently accepted.
As part of the normal conveyancing procedures, the Sykes’s solicitors sent out the sellers’ property information form, which contains a list of questions under 13 headings such as boundaries, disputes with neighbours, services, persons in occupation, planning and fixtures.
The form includes a question which is at the heart of the appeal: “Is there any other information which you think the buyer may have a right to know?” The Taylor-Roses ticked the box “no”, relying on the advice they had been given by their solicitor the year before. Their solicitor then confirmed that the written information they had given was complete and accurate, and completion of the purchase went ahead on December 11, 2000.
It was some six months later that the Sykeses saw the television documentary. The judge said: “They were horrified by what they saw. I am not surprised at their reaction.
“The film was shown in court. It shows impressively the work done by forensic scientists in various disciplines, but in order to bring home to the viewers the nature of the work, the makers have necessarily had to go into disturbing detail with regard to Dr Perera’s disposal of the remains of his victim.”
Their reaction, he said, “was such that they no longer wanted to live in 16 Stillwell Drive. They put the house on the market.”
But the couple decided “in all conscience to dispose of the property without disclosing what they had found out. Their evidence is that such disclosure put off prospective purchasers who might otherwise have come up to the mark.”
Lawyers for the Sykeses accept that there is no general duty on a vendor to disclose defects in the quality or “expected enjoyment” of land being sold or matters that may affect its value. But they say that in a case such as this, the facts are so heinous that they cannot be withheld because there is no other way a buyer would discover them. The principle of caveat emptor — buyer beware — while hallowed in the past, is nearing the end of its useful life.
But Judge Langan agreed with lawyers for the Taylor-Roses. When asked if they had any other information a buyer might have a right to know, that was a question which related to their state of mind, not that of the buyer. The question was asking for the vendors’ opinion, not for facts about the property itself, he said.
Also, it would be impossible to answer the question in an objective (rather than subjective) way, the judge added. That would require a vendor to disclose matters he might otherwise be entitled to keep to himself.
The Taylor-Roses, he concluded, were not negligent; and nor, he ruled, was the solicitor who had advised the Taylor-Roses, Robert Edwards, now with D. E. Granville Chapman of Grimsby.
“No authority, one way or the other, would have directed Mr Edwards to the ‘right’ answer,” the judge said. He had not given an off-the-cuff answer but had consulted colleagues; and even if he had been wrong, that was not the same as being in breach of duty.
Tomorrow the Court of Appeal will decide if he is right. If the Sykeses win, it could mean the death of caveat emptor and a boom in business for historians in demand to guarantee a house has no “form”.
Neither side was prepared to comment yesterday before the appeal court hearing.