To the lawyer’s office for a post mortem on the case against James Stephens, Leonardo Petturiti and the building firm now calling itself Lacos. Laura, the lawyer, tots up the numbers. We first issued lawyers letters in the hope of getting our roof fixed without the need for a case in 2001, after non-lawyerly pleading had been ignored. A case was initiated in 2002 and accepted by the court in October 2002. It effectively ended in June 2009, with a settlement but no judicial decision, though there will be a final hearing to celebrate the archivazione of the case on 7 July.
It total, there will have been 15 hearings over eight years of pre-trial and trial activity. However three of these are from recent weeks under the dashing Dr. Cenci (who, having resolved almost all of Citta di Castello’s outstanding legal issues in less than a year of tenure, is to move on this summer). If one subtracts the Cenci hearings and the period before the first hearing, then the core case averaged one ‘audience’ every seven months for something over six years. A good rule for a hearing, I think, is two hours of standing around followed by something over an hour of achieving not much, followed by lunch.
With respect to our standing at the end of the case, the numbers give the following reckoning:
Fat Boy pays us: Euro3,000
Petturiti pays us: Euro3,000
LAME/LACOS pays us: Euro3,000
Lawyer, court fees, etc Euro4,500
Initial survey by new geometra
to substantiate our case Euro1,000
Court-mandated roof survey by
geometra who won’t go on roof * Euro2,300
*(The submission of this survey took 18 months, or three times the stipulated norm.)
So the difference is Euro1,200. That covers some of the cost of the materials required to fix the roof (including a replacement terrace flooring). But the majority of the expense on external repairs was in the form of labour. After Petturiti and the building firm had come back for a joke, one-day intervention in 2001, when they threw down some sealant borrowed from another site, I was so concerned with being ripped off again (and I think at the time also broke) that I worked myself as the labourer/operaio for a retired builder from Pietralunga in order to sort out the roof; it was he who taught me something about building and with whom I have enjoyed working ever since. In some places we laid new roofing felt and in others we variously used sealant and added a new line of tiles to cover a water run-off where felt had not been laid properly. It was not at every leaking point a perfect solution, but we worked carefully, and the roof has not leaked since. Frankly, once a roof has been screwed up, it is a difficult thing to remedy completely, which is why in many places (including northern Italy) roofing is a specialist job. In all, including the refinishing of a terrace, it probably took the two of us two weeks each.
In addition to this, the single biggest expense would be (if we had done them) repairs to internal damage – including discoloured oak steps on the staircase, which were damaged by leaking water before they were sealed, and streaks, stains and mould on painted walls. The latter is the most problematic because in our house, as in successive apartments we have had in Citta di Castello, we used a time-consuming and expensive painting technique involving a base of white calce, layers of calce-based natural colour, and a finishing layer of wax mixed with natural oils. The aesthetic possibilities of this technique are considerable, and the wax finish makes the walls cleanable, but if you get water coming in behind the surface, the wax means it has nowhere to go, hence mould. Given the cost, and the reality of three small kids in the house, we have redecorated only the room that was worst affected.
So what were the lessons from the case? The first, I think, is that if you have a problem with building work, take lots and lots of photographs of physical evidence yourself. I foolishly left most of this to the geometras who came to survey the damage. When I was covering one part of the roof in plastic to stop water coming in, and particularly while we were repairing different parts of the roof, there were ample opportunities to take more photographs to show exactly how roofing felt had been mis-applied. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems very silly not to have done this. I think that once we began to fix the roof I was just so relieved that something was being done that I lost my focus on the case. (I am not certain that photos taken while we did the repairs, when the case was already running, would be admissible; but they should still have been taken.) I also thought that another builder, who was then running his own firm, and who came up and saw (indeed explained) much of what had been done wrong, would provide clear testimony in the case.
That was lesson number two. Never expect a builder to provide testimony against another builder, never expect a geometra to provide clear testimony against another geometra. Lesson three is the biggest one of all. Don’t ever pay for anything until you are absolutely sure that you are getting what you are supposed to be getting. In many respects, deferred payment is the local solution to the absence of a functioning civil court system. Foreigners tend to hang themselves because they want to settle their accounts promptly. It would be better to take on board the local saying that: ‘For paying and for dying, there is always time.’ I, I’m afraid, fell into James Stephens’ trap of signing a delega to give him access to our Italian bank account. So by the time we actually came to live in Italy, and discovered our roof leaked, the builders, Petturiti and Fat Boy had long since taken their money and run.
Was the case worth it? In the sense that we could not get a decision, and the settlement barely covers the costs, clearly not. It is really the first of these things that is most depressing. When I started the case, and lots of people said it was a waste of time, my argument was that the justice system is slow, but in the end it functions (perhaps I meant that in the end surely it must function, ho, ho). I told friends that slow justice is not necessarily a bad thing if it discourages the kind of ambulance chasing you get in Anglo-Saxon societies. But in this case the justice system did not function at all. It was pretty unpleasant to see the studied inefficiency of the system at work. How magistrates arrived at a place where they do an hour’s work on a case every seven months I cannot imagine. It is as if management consultants had been called in and told the objective of the system is to achieve nothing.
I spent a lot of time during the case, especially when I had to go to the tribunale, thinking about how much decent people must be suffering because of this system. There is in fact some reasonably hard evidence that this is the case. Contrary to popular opinion, Italians score close to the bottom of the list in European surveys about happiness and satisfaction with their lives. What is particularly interesting is that when researchers attempt to figure out why this is – most often using questionnaires structured by psychologists – the clearest pattern that emerges is that there is some broad link between the level of trust in institutions in a society and aggregate levels of happiness. The latest iteration of a European survey project run by Cambridge University, published in April, had Italy right down at the bottom of the happiness table, the UK somewhere in the middle, and Scandinavian countries up at the top. One of those running the project remarks:
‘The survey shows that trust in society is very important. The countries that scored highest for happiness also reported the highest levels of trust in their governments, laws and each other…
Many of the happiest countries in the survey – the Scandinavian members, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – also come top of the World Bank Governance Indicators, which seek to assess the quality of a country’s government. Likewise those EU 15 countries that scored worst in terms of governance (Italy, Portugal and Greece) tended to come bottom in the happiness survey as well.’
Happiness surveys are notoriously difficult to do well, and one should not place too much credence in a single project. But for me, the findings are in line with arguments that have been made by people like Amartya Sen, and which I have come to find quite convincing. I used to think that important institutions – like a functioning legal system – were essential to economic development and hence, by logical extension, a developed country like Italy must have a functioning legal system (just a slow one). This line of argument is associated with some of the economists who practise what is known as New Institutional Economics, which has become quite fashionable in the past 10 years or so. However, after spending a decade in China, and almost a decade in Italy, I no longer believe in this reasoning. I think economic development can occur despite a highly inefficient legal system; indeed I think there are cases in China where the weakness of legal institutions has even (temporarily) contributed to economic growth by allowing narrow economic interests to trump social considerations. So instead of the ‘precondition of development’ argument about institutions, I now prefer an extension of Sen’s one about democracy. Sen has long argued that the debate about whether democracy is necessary to development is a sterile one, based on a false distinction. Democracy, he says, is a part of development, and so it is pointless debating whether it is also a condition for it. I suspect the same thing is true of some other institutions, including a civil legal system. A legal system in which people can trust makes for a more contented society; all societies seek to develop in the direction of greater contentment; what Italy confronts is in essence a developmental problem.
Anyhow, that seems to have taken us quite a long way from James Stephens and Leo Petturiti, but perhaps someone will follow my drift.
Housekeeping. I hope there will not be too many of these… A comment has been submitted which I am not going to post. The sender: Emilia Maccioni (the wife of Leonardo Petturiti). Reasons for not posting: 1. absence of any substantive content. 2. remarks likely to cause offence to anybody who has suffered, or who has friends or family who have suffered, from any form of mental illness. I don’t mind what people say about me, but general bigotry is off-limits.