Malta should “put an end to the systemic violation of the right of property”, the European Court of Human Rights said in a judgment.

The court also encouraged the government to pursue measures aimed at remedying the situation “speedily and with due diligence under the supervision of the Committee of Ministers”.

This was not the first time the Strasbourg-based court had made such an appeal.

The latest call was made in a judgment that, for the first time, was delivered ‘in committee’, that is having only three judges.

Known as a well-established case law (WECL) judgment, the implication was that the underlying question in the case did not need to be referred for a decision by a full chamber of seven judges.

When dealing with a case ‘in committee’, the judge elected in respect of the State in question need not be a member of the committee. Also, the three judges must be unanimous in their decision, and therefore there are no separate opinions.

Moreover, neither the applicant nor the government can appeal a WECL judgment to the Grand Chamber, as the committee’s decision is final.

In this case, the Maltese government objected to the application being considered by a committee. However, the judges sitting on the committee hearing the case can also overrule the objection summarily, which they, in fact, did.

The application was filed just over five years ago by Josephine Mary Vella, of Siġġiewi, owner of 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 – Ms Vella’s parents and uncle – never accepted the tenants, nor did they accept rent from them.

Their stand was vindicated by a judgment of the Civil Court (First Hall) in 1958. Subsequently, rent was paid to the owners by the Housing Authority’s predecessor and later deposited in court.

Pursue a remedy with speed and due diligence
under the supervision of the Committee of Ministers

Over the years, there were disagreements about the rent paid, alterations to the property and also its use, including the manufacture of fireworks there.

Ms Vella and her brothers also owned an adjacent property, which was requisitioned in 1986 and also allocated to the band club. They took the matter to court, insisting that the more recent requisition order was illegal and demanding payment of damages.

The Civil Court (First Hall) rejected their claims, and they appealed, their demands being eventually upheld.

Then in 2007, Ms Vella opened court proceedings in relation to the 1955 requisition order. The Civil Court upheld her claims and even ordered the band club to vacate the premises. The band club and the government appealed

The Constitutional Court subsequently found that though the requisition had been “disproportionate” it had been made in the public interest. The order for the band club to vacate the property was revoked.

Ms Vella took the case to Strasbourg, arguing that the requisition order had caused her “an excessive individual burden”.

The government submitted that since the European Convention of Human Rights had come into force with respect to Malta in 1967, claims pre-dating that period could not be entertained by the Strasbourg court.

The Strasbourg court agreed on this point, though it found there had been a violation of Ms Vella’s right to property post-1967. It threw out the government’s submission that Ms Vella had lost her status as a victim.

The three judges sitting on the committee concluded that Ms Vella’s rights had been violated, noting that the government had failed to strike “the requisite fair balance between the general interests of the community and the protection of the applicant’s right of property”.

They noted that the European Court of Human Rights had already “established, in the context of Maltese cases before it, that even though Maltese domestic law provides for a remedy, for the purposes of a complaint under article 13 [right to an effective remedy], in respect of a final judgment of the Constitutional Court, the length of the proceedings detracts from the effectiveness of that remedy”.

The European Court awarded Ms Vella €150,000 in material damages, €8,000 in moral damages and €7,000 to cover costs and expenses.