Land owners in Siġġiewi who filed proceedings in court more than 30 years ago have won €20,000 in moral damages after they were forced to abandon their case when one of the volumes of their drawn-out case went missing.
The Constitutional Court found that the owners’ rights to a fair hearing had been breached when the case before the Rural Lease Control Board had to be abandoned because of the missing file with more than 10 years of documentation, transcripts and court minutes.
The court found this first volume of the case had so much evidence inside it that it could not be reconstructed, and a final judgment could never be pronounced.
Presided over by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti and judges Tonio Mallia and Anthony Ellul, the Constitutional Court heard how the owners were leasing their land for a paltry €23 a year. They attempted to stop the lease and ask for their land to be returned to them and filed proceedings before the Rural Lease Control Board in 1988.
They told the court that the case was deferred for judgment in November 1998, but this could not happen because the first volume of the case was lost. As a consequence, the board was deprived of all acts and all attempts to find it or reconstruct it were in vain.
The owners said they were forced to abandon their case due to negligence, insisting there had been a violation of their right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time but also their right for a judgment since the file was lost. They also insisted that even their right to the enjoyment of their property was trampled upon because the issue was never put to rest.
However, the latter argument was thrown out by the court, which said the owners could have never known how the case was going to be decided.
In awarding the owners €20,000 compensation for the breaches suffered, the court said the court registrar was also partly responsible for what had happened.
“The registrar adopted a passive attitude and waited until some party to the proceedings file a copy of the missing documents. It is true that the parties to a dispute have an obligation to assist the registrar in compiling a copy of the documents of the court or any other lost document but the registrar cannot just wait for the parties to give him a copy of all the documents.”
The court ordered the registrar to pay 20 per cent of the compensation, with the rest being paid by the state advocate.
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