Legal amendments intended to neutralise court judgments evicting band clubs from their premises were “a clear abuse of power”, Malta’s highest court has ruled.

The Constitutional Court said the law also went against the principle of separation of powers, the most basic principle of democracy.

“Legislation neutralising final judgments of the court which is not justified by compelling reasons can never be considered legal… The court considers that the introduction of this [law] represents a clear abuse of power by the legislator and impermissible interference with the operation of these courts,” three judges ruled at the end of a case involving the De Paule Band Club, in Paola.

They also raised compensation to the owners of the property from €74,000 to over €100,000.

The law had been amended to reverse the effect of a judgment in which an appeal court ordered the band club to be evicted after carrying out structural works without the owners’ consent.

That judgment came after a long-fought legal battle started in 1997 by the family that owns the property.

The judgment, however, created a furore among the members of the band club, who feared their beloved musical society might have to be disbanded.

It was also considered to be a worrying precedent for clubs with pending court proceedings instituted by the landlords.

Faced by calls to address the situation, and in line with the Labour Party’s manifesto, then justice minister Owen Bonnici promised to intervene to ensure band clubs would not be evicted. A few days later, the government announced its intention to amend the law.

Impermissible interference with the operation of these courts

The amended legislation effectively reversed the court order against the De Paul Band Club and overturned the owners’ right to repossess their property.

The club took back possession of the premises – which it had been renting from the family since 1945 – in April 2018.

The new law also allows other band clubs to continue occupying their premises even if their eviction is ordered by a court, so long as they pay a rent 10 times higher than they were paying before the eviction order, up to a maximum of one per cent of the property’s value.

The legislation blocks court-ordered evictions altogether even when structural alterations are carried out without the owners’ consent – previously grounds for eviction – so long as those works are done for philanthropic or social purposes.

But the owners of the Paola premises fought back, saying the new laws made “a mockery of the judiciary and the rule of law”.

Their argument was first upheld by the First Hall of the Civil Court, which declared that the new law was unconstitutional. All parties to the case filed an appeal: the band club, the state advocate and the property owners.

The Constitutional Court has now confirmed that the law is not in line with the constitution as it breaches property owners’ human rights, including their right to a fair hearing, and interferes unduly with their right to peaceful enjoyment of the property.

Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti and judges Giannino Caruana Demajo and Tonio Mallia ruled that the new law was “manifestly censurable” and threw out the arguments made by the band club and the state advocate.

The court upheld the owners’ claim that the compensation of €74,000 awarded to them by the first court was paltry and increased it to just over €108,500, including €15,000 in moral damages.

Lawyers Paul Cachia and Hugh Peralta represented the owners.

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