Research, travel, and legal dispatches from my Fulbright year in Bologna, Italy.
The decision finally resolves a 1934 property dispute surrounding a plot of land that required the court to trace the chain of title back to 1536. Above: Naples.
NAPLES, Italy — It was a case so extreme that it made headlines even in a country notorious for the slow pace of justice. Last month, an 80-year-old dispute was finally resolved when a special magistrate judge ruled that 10 hectares of land was improperly claimed for public use in the 1930s in the Campania region in southern Italy, an article in La Repubblica newspaper reported last month.
The case turned on the “continuous and non-interrupted possession” of the land dating back to 1536. In order to trace the chain of title, the court also had to consult the French land registry of 1801 — established by King Giuseppe Bonaparte of Naples before Italy was even a country — and a feudal law decision that was handed down in 1809.
The city of Arienzo had taken the land in 1934, arguing that since 1536, collective farming communities had been allowed to use the land to grow crops necessary for survival. This use, which was documented in the 1809 case, rendered it public property that could be seized for civic use.
After “an infinite series of ascertainments, archival research, expert appraisals, challenges, appeals, technical verifications, [and] appointment of experts,” the court disagreed, granting full ownership to a private family, La Repubblica reported. The court had held its first hearing on June 30, 1934, inspiring the newspaper to say the case “demonstrates justice that is slow, incredibly slow, almost stopped.”
Languishing court proceedings are nothing new for Italy; the country is notorious for cases taking years to resolve. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has made judicial reform one of his top priorities, arguing that foreign investors are scared off by the courts’ inability to enforce contracts, resolve labor disputes, and protect intellectual property in a timely manner.
The delays have also been recognized as a human rights issue with the vast majority of cases brought against Italy before the European Court of Human Rights involving the length of judicial proceedings. Between 1959 and 2013, the Court decided 1,187 cases involving “length of proceedings,” compared to 335 cases on the next most-litigated complaint: violations of protection of property.
But even by those standards, the Arienzo land-dispute case represents an extreme. Civil cases in Italy take an average of 8 years to resolve, according to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — not 80.
In the end, the decision turned on page 496 of the French land registry. The court returned the land to its former private owners, the de Falco family, most recently represented by Prof. Diego de Falco of the State University of Milan. De Falco’s lawyer, feudal law expert Amedeo Passaro del Foro, told La Repubblica that the land plot represented a “very interesting case.”
“The roads that take us to the truth are the same that take us to error,” Passaro said, paraphrasing the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. “Therefore Italian justice is slow but unlikely to make mistakes.”
(c) 2014 Janna Brancolini