A judge has awarded a couple €35,000 in compensation after their case dragged out for 21 years amid “useless deferrals” in a court that was “indifferent” to the delays.

Mr Justice Toni Abela ruled it was unreasonable and unjustified for the civil suit over a rental agreement to take over 14 years to be decided and another six years for garnishee orders on the couple’s accounts to be lifted.

He was ruling in a case filed by Paul and Colette Berman against the State Advocate.

The couple had been sued by Rachelle Buttigieg in May 2000 over their alleged breach of a rental contract on a property in Main Street, Balzan.

The landlady claimed they had signed an agreement to rent the property for two years but had moved out without paying.

The Bermans argued during the case that the property was not in a good state due to water seepage and excessive humidity, making it uninhabitable. They also filed a counter claim for part of the rent they had paid.

By 2005, the parties had presented all their evidence and the presiding judge, Joseph R. Micallef, deferred the case for judgment to February 2006.

But no judgment was delivered and the case continued to be put off for judgment until 2012 when a new judge, Lorraine Schembri Orland, took the case over.

A decision was finally handed down in March 2014 when the court threw out the landlady’s case. She filed an appeal but later abandoned it.

However, it took the court another six years to lift garnishee orders placed on the accounts of the couple and a company they operated, causing serious liquidity problems and eventually leading to the company’s liquidation.

The case was finally concluded in December 2019, that is, 21 years and a month after it first landed in court. Mr Justice Abela quoted local and European jurisprudence outlining the reasonable time it should take for a case to be decided, taking into consideration the complexity of the case and the behaviour of the parties in terms of time wastage. In this case, the judge said, reasons for delays were “useless deferrals” totalling more than eight years.

He said the backlog of cases in domestic courts could not be used as an excuse for delays. According to the European Court, cases ought to be concluded within a year or two if they are complex. This case was not a complex one and neither was there any lack of legal clarity that could have contributed to the delay.

The first court, the judge said, was “indifferent to the delays” and failed to take appropriate action to conclude the case.

The court awarded the couple €35,000 as compensation for the unjustified delays.

Lawyer Jean Carl Abela appeared for the Bermans.

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