MP accuses minister of institutional ‘omertà’ over tenants facing eviction

Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi accuses government of ignoring tenants whose protection under unconstitutional 1979 amendments is threatened

Justice minister Owen Bonnici
Justice minister Owen Bonnici

Thousands of Maltese families are suffering in silence because they fear eviction from rent-controlled homes by the Constitutional courts, an MP warned yesterday.

Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi accused the Labour government of shying away from the challenge to give tenants of rent-controlled housing peace of mind, as more successful court claims were being upheld.

He was referring to the decisions in the Maltese courts challenging the 1979 amendments that allowed leaseholders to become tenants under permanent rental contracts. The European Court of Human Rights has since found the law, which guarantees protection against eviction and limits the increase in annual rent payable, against landlords’ right to property.

Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi
Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi

Maltese courts have also declared the law to be unconstitutional.

Azzopardi was addressing the House of Representatives on the draft amendment Bill to the Civil Code.

“This Government is indifferent to the wounds of those being evicted from their homes because of the illegal law introduced by the socialist government of the 1970s… the institutional omertà on this matter is scary. The Government is refusing to talk about this because it does not want to resolve the problem.”

Two years ago Azzopardi laid 258 court sentences dealing with the unconstitutionality of Malta’s rental laws, handed down by the courts over a period of seven years.

“The minister laughed at me back then. Since then three years have passed and nothing happened… he said the Attorney General was working on a draft law and a social impact assessment was being carried out. What happened since then? Nothing.”

The law found to be unconstitutional by the Maltese constitutional court is the Housing Decontrol Ordinance (1959), after the court found that Article 12(2) – which allows a temporary emphyteusis [Maltese: cens temporanju] to be converted into a permanent rental agreement – was “inconsistent” with the European Convention of Human Rights.

Specifically, the Civil Code gives landlords the right to reclaim their property upon termination of a lease.

But in 1979, the government passed a law to protect tenants so that – under the Housing Decontrol Ordinance – any lease of up to 30 years contracted before 21 June 1979, can be turned into a rent.

Azzopardi accused the Government of having thought nothing of giving people like property developer Mark Gaffarena €5 million or €4 million to the Café Premier leaseholders.

“A government whose high officials opened secret Panama companies just 48 hours after being elected to power, thinks nothing of workers’ families, of elderly tenants and pensioners who are being evicted from their homes. Obviously there are no commissions to be made from solving these social problems, so it looks the other way.”

Azzopardi said that in January 2018, the most recent case against Malta in the European Court of Human Rights found the Maltese state guilty and fined €180,000 even when the applicants themselves had acquired a property with tenants protected by the 1979 law.

“It’s a decision that embarrasses a supposedly Labour government which is indeed a ‘champagne socialist’ government, generous with the rich and the elite, and miserly with the poor, a neoliberal administration that has sold its principals to the materialist god where money is an end in itself.”

Bolstered by the ECHR ruling in the Amato Gauci case, which found that Maltese law breached fundamental rights by forcibly subjecting landlords to a tenant relationship without their consent, property owners are trying to reclaim their properties.

The Maltese courts have already dished out decisions that reflect the spirit of the Amato Gauci ruling. Significantly it was a constitutional ruling that upheld previous decisions that a tenant, Carmel Camilleri, could not keep availing himself of this law to rent a property at just Lm90 (€225) a year, after the lease terminated in 1991.

Originally, Bartolomeo and Giuseppa Bezzina had leased out their Gharghur property to Camilleri in 1974 for a period of 17 years. In 1991, Camilleri availed himself of the right accorded by the Housing Decontrol Ordinance, to keep renting the house he leased, with a marginal increase in the annual rent.

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