During our short time here, it’s been interesting to get a first brief taste of the differences between the US and Spanish legal systems. If I had to judge (forgive the pun), I’d say they seem even more than 4,000 miles apart.
Being part of the EU, Spain faces the extra challenge of having to align its laws and standards with all the member countries. That’s no small feat. Imagine if Washington, as it was contemplating a new law, suddenly received notice that no such law could be passed because it ran counter to standards in Canada, Mexico and Latin America. I could see rioting in the streets at that kind of imposition. Half of Texas would probably grab the shotgun off the pickup gun rack and start screaming 1776.
Maybe that’s too simplistic of a view, but it’s not totally opposite to the reality here. On the plus side, it has led to very consumer-friendly standards, such as strict privacy laws and enacting the EU-wide rule that products are to be offered with a two-year warranty. The flip side is that these far-reaching laws are great fodder for feeding the extreme nationalistic parties that exist in almost every country here. As they keep proving, the fastest path to political success is by appealing to people’s hearts via whatever bogeyman can be exploited, and the EU is a pretty easy target.
But even as they legally align across broad areas, the individual countries can still pass laws that stand alone, especially if they are more under the radar. There’s been a couple in the news lately in Spain that caught my attention. But then, who wouldn’t read an article with the headline: “Spaniards face sanctions if found to be drunk in charge of a pair of legs.”
The headline writer is taking a little extra liberty with this one, but it does outline that Spanish officials are considering beefing up rules to put more responsibility on pedestrians for safety. The intent is to treat walkers the same as drivers in cases of accidents or incidents, even if the result has rapidly become comical. It gets tough to defend a proposed law when it includes a clause suggesting the establishment of a speed limit for pedestrians.
Critics of the law have been focusing on how they believe it would infringe on Spaniards rights, in particular how some people could shy away from attending festivals and weddings out of fear of being breathalysed on the way home. After all, it’s all about quality of life and fiestas are a big part of that. The more health-inclined in the crowd are also lining up against, suggesting it could create a ban on jogging if nothing more than a brisk trot is allowed. I can just imagine the debate. I’d watch if I understood more of the words.
And if you are thinking this is laughable and could never happen, well, there’s a report this week of a Spanish man being fined 100 Euros for running too quickly down the street, plus being charged four points on his driving licence. Yes, that fine was for running. I have a feeling there is more to the story since it suggests he ignored police, but still, makes you think that crazy laws can end up a reality in certain hands.
Beyond such oddities, the legal system here seems pretty balanced. It seems lacking in silly lawsuits, and I haven’t seen a loud billboard advertising ambulance chasers. There is an interesting concept here called a “gestor,” which is someone who can help navigate not only legal issues but anything requiring paperwork (which pretty much means everything here). A gestor is a fairly inexpensive way to navigate bureaucratic challenges. I like the concept and I’m sure many people in the US would also find it useful to tap into someone with specific knowledge and a price tag below that of a full lawyer, although I suppose it’s less likely to catch on simply because of the abundance of lawyers in the US. Gestors do tend to be quite Spanish, so their usefulness for the expat community is limited.
The one area where a lot of legal activity happens here is real estate. From what I’ve read so far, it’s a bit of a minefield with transactions being both costly and complicated. The proper paperwork is at the heart of the issue, driven by the fact that many properties here have been in the same family for decades. When it comes time to sell, it’s apparent that no true registration of the property exists, and a buyer can end up inheriting the mess if they are not cautious.
The problem isn’t confined only to older properties. In southern Spain, there are somewhere in the area of 200,000 homes that were built during the boom and never registered, leaving owners in a particularly sticky situation. There is a move afoot to grandfather these in and relieve some of the pain. Saying it’s wise to shop carefully when it comes to real estate is an understatement here.
I guess the moral of the story is, check the paperwork no matter the name of the country. If you can read it, of course.
RANDOM THOUGHTS: The Spanish are really not big fans of the internet. Even routine information is often not posted online, or is simply wrong. More than once, we have looked at a restaurant’s own website for something basic like opening hours and gotten the wrong info. Kind of tough to be successful when you tell your customers you’re open when you’re not… The love of forms and paperwork in Spain is a legacy of the Franco dictatorship, I’m told. It may be almost 40 years since he left the building, but having people record everything is still the way of the land. There’s a form for everything, they all have lots and lots of boxes and ID is mandatory. I literally had to hand over an identification number for a sample. You better want that freebie!..