Malta’s 1979 rent laws may have to be revised or even struck off the statute books following a European Court of Human Rights landmark judgment on a case instituted by a Gozitan landlord.

Changes to the law made in 1979, which prohibited landlords from refusing to renew existing leases or raising rents when the tenant was a Maltese citizen, breached property rights in terms of the European Convention, the Court ruled.

Although the laws were changed again in 1995 and in 2005 to reopen the rental market, those having a pre-1995 lease contract continued to enjoy the protection afforded to them by the 1979 amendments.

This meant landlords could not terminate the lease of their properties and could only double the rent once every 15 years.

Lawyer Joseph Ellis, who appeared for Anthony Aquilina, told Times of Malta: “The Strasbourg Court has now declared that these laws are in breach of fundamental human rights, particularly when it comes to enjoying one’s own property.”

He described the ruling as a landmark one, adding it meant the government would have to change the law.

The case dates back to 1984, when Mr Aquilina, who lives in Canada, inherited a maisonette in Gozo from his mother.

However, he could not enjoy the property because it had been leased to tenants since 1970 at a meagre annual rent of about €65.

The 1979 legal amendments prevented Mr Aquilina from either terminating the tenant’s lease or raising the rent to reflect market prices.

Mr Aquilina argued in cases he instituted in Maltese courts that although the tenants themselves had substantial other properties at their disposal – so much so that they had sold nine plots of land they had inherited – they still decided to keep living in his property and paying a very low rent.

According to a report drawn up by government architects, the rental value of the property in 2005 stood at €2,912 a year, when the tenants were paying a measly €65.

The Maltese courts dismissed Mr Aquilina’s claims.

Taking the matter to Strasbourg, Mr Aquilina submitted that while the tenants were not in a position to pay higher rents, they were willing to move out if they were paid a financial incentive (so-called key money) amounting to €232,494.

Mr Aquilina said the situation was in breach of his property rights because the law denied him a realistic possibility of resuming possession of his property, given that, by law, this was only possible in exceptional circumstances.

The European Court upheld Mr Aquilina’s plea and ruled that his property rights under the convention had been violated.

It also ordered the government to pay Mr Aquilina €21,550 in compensation.

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