A decision to pre-empt on the sale of a property by SAFER is annulled due to a failure of proper notification to the buyers.
The French rural land agency SAFER (Société d'aménagement foncier et d'établissement rural) is a body about whom regular readers of these pages will be aware, for we have reported on them on numerous occasions in the past.
The way the agency operates comes in from regular criticism from many quarters, not least the French National Audit Office.
This government agency has the right of first purchase (droit de pre-emption) on most rural property with land that comes onto the market in France, and certainly all property with agricultural status.
In the process of purchase of the property, ‘purging’ of the rights of SAFER is carried out by the notaire, whose responsibility it is to write to SAFER asking them if they want to buy the property.
In practice, the vast majority of rural property sales go through without SAFER showing any interest, although where agricultural interests are dominant the proposed sale is closely examined.
In a case heard in the French courts recently, on 7 October 2014, the sellers signed a sale contract via a notaire for the sale of three parcels of land, located in the municipality of Etroeungt (Nord department), to four buyers, all members of the same family.
As is required in law, the notaire advised the local SAFER of the proposed sale, who then had two months to decide whether they wished to pre-empt on the sale.
On 4 December 2014, SAFER advised that they wished to exercise their right of purchase, following which the sale was regularised to them.
The four buyers subsequently brought an action in the local tribunal against the pre-emption, with a view to the sale being cancelled, but they lost the case, with the court ruling that they should also pay all costs and expenses.
Nevertheless, the group appealed the decision to the court of appeal, who ruled in their favour, stating that the absence of notification of the pre-emption decision to all the evicted purchasers invalided the pre-emption by SAFER, as a consequence of which the sale was annulled.
Although SAFER had duly notified their decision by recorded delivery letters to each member of the household at their shared address, the delivery receipt was only signed by one of them.
The court ruled that notification under the rural code required that there was a formal record that each member of the family had received the decision letter.
The ruling follows a similar more recent, clear-cut case, where the Supreme Court also held that where a letter delivered to the buyer was returned 'défaut d'accès ou d'adressage' the obligation of notification had not been satisfied. The pre-emption was also declared invalid in that case.