The Constitutional Court increased compensation to €210,000 for the owners of the premises housing Żabbar’s Soċjetà Filarmonika Maria Mater Gratiae Band Club after confirming old rent laws breached their fundamental rights.
In October 2016, the First Hall of the Civil Court found the human rights of the owners had been breached and ordered the club to be evicted.
The first court heard that the owners’ predecessors had leased the large townhouse in 1926, before laws protecting tenants from eviction were introduced. Following the promulgation of this law, the band club was considered a protected tenant and remained so despite the amendments to the laws governing rentals.
According to the owners, the property was worth €885,000 and had a rental value of €28,763 per year. But the band club, as a result of the provisions of the rent laws, was only paying €279.52 by way of annual rent.
The band club was benefitting from what the court described as a ridiculous rent when it purchased another property for commercial use while occupying the owners’ property.
The first court condemned the Attorney General to pay €180,000 in pecuniary damages and €10,000 for moral damages.
Following the owners’ appeal, through their lawyer, Paul Cachia, the pecuniary damages were raised to €200,000, while the moral damages remained at €10,000. The eviction order was not upheld.
Malta has repeatedly been reprimanded for breaching the European Convention of Human Rights through its rent laws, which remain unchanged despite multiple judgments in favour of property owners. In one of the latest rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, Malta was told it ought to “put an end to the systemic violation of the right of property”.
The band club was only paying €279.52 in annual rent
The court encouraged the government to pursue measures aimed at remedying the situation “speedily and with due diligence”.
It has become a familiar conclusion, echoed in hundreds of previous judgments finding fundamental flaws with Malta’s infamous rent laws.
Earlier this year, the ECHR delivered a ruling on a two-storey building in Kirkop on which a requisition order was issued in 1955 and the property allocated to the locality’s St Leonard Band Club. The original owners had never accepted the tenants, nor did they accept rent from them.
The court concluded that the landlord’s rights had been violated, since the government failed to strike “the requisite fair balance between the general interests of the community and the protection of the applicant’s right of property”.
Just last week, the government announced that it had introduced changes to the law meant to “safeguard” band clubs from eviction from their leased premises as a result of legal action by their landlords.
These civil code amendments, approved by Parliament last month, are also meant to give greater recognition to the cultural contribution of musical societies.
The changes came after a judgment by a court last April in which the De Paul Band Club in Paola was ordered to vacate its premises following a 20-year legal battle with its landlords. In this case the owners of the building took the club to court over unauthorised structural works.
Through the law, band clubs may continue to occupy their premises even after their eviction has been ordered by a court, so long as they meet a number of conditions. The law drew criticism from former Chamber of Advocates president Reuben Balzan, who said it was “totally unacceptable for any government to propose a law reversing a court judgment”.
“If the government decides as a matter of public policy that band clubs deserve special status because of their social importance, it needs to find a solution that doesn’t harm the owner,” Dr Balzan had told The Sunday Times of Malta.
“You cannot breach rights confirmed by a court for the sake of popularity.”
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