The case of Anthony Aquilina v. Malta (Application no. 3851/12) involved proceedings instituted by Mr. Aquilina (hereinafter ‘the Applicant’) before the European Court of Human Rights, Fifth Section, (hereinafter ‘the ECtHR’ or ‘the Court’) wherein he alleged that his rights to property under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (hereinafter ‘the Convention’) had been infringed by the Maltese State.
The Applicant had inherited a maisonette in Gozo following the demise of his mother in 1984. On the 12th January 1960, the property had been registered as a ‘decontrolled dwelling house’ in terms of the 1959 Housing (Decontrol) Ordinance, rendering the maisonette free from rent control in terms of the Rent Ordinances. In 1970, the Applicant’s mother had leased the maisonette to a Maltese couple for a rent of 35 Maltese Liri every six months (approximately EUR 81.50).
The Housing (Decontrol) Ordinance was amended in 1979, rendering the rent restrictions in the Rent Ordinances applicable to leases of decontrolled premises where the tenants were Maltese citizens who occupied such premises as their ordinary residence. As a result, the Applicant could no longer increase the rent or refuse to renew the lease. The lease market was liberalised in 1995, yet existing leases such as the one in dispute remained governed by the former regime. However, following further amendments in 2009, the rent receivable by the applicant was increased to EUR 185. The annual rental value of the property as per a court appointed architect’s valuation in 2005 was established at EUR 2,912.
The Applicant instituted two sets of constitutional redress proceedings before the Maltese courts to challenge the validity of the 1979 amendments in the light of the Convention. Following the rejection of his pleas by the Maltese courts, the Applicant instituted proceedings before the ECtHR, which deemed the application admissible. The Applicant’s main grievance was that the repressive effects of the 1979 amendments, which rendered the landlord unable to charge a fair rent which reflects market value or to have a realistic possibility of resuming possession of his property, could not have been foreseen by his mother when leasing out the premises in 1970. He further argued that the interference with his property rights was excessive, disproportionate and not in the public interest, especially following the liberalisation of the lease market in 1995. He further submitted that it was doubtful whether the 2009 amendments to the Civil Code intended to gradually phase out controlled leases actually applied in his case.
The Maltese Government counter argued that the Applicant had not suffered any prejudice as a result of the 1979 amendments since he had inherited the property in 1984 when it was already subject to such law. It further contended that it was within the Government’s discretion to amend the law relating to lease and fix the applicable rent, and that the law pursued a public interest in seeking to ensure the provision of adequate accommodation to tenants.
At the outset, the ECtHR rejected the Government’s argument that since the disputed law was already in place when the Applicant inherited the property, he had not suffered any prejudice. The Court acknowledged that States have a right to control the use of property and enjoy a wide margin of appreciation in implementing social measures. However, it stated that any domestic law interfering with the peaceful enjoyment of possessions would only be upheld if it was accessible, precise, foreseeable in its application, in accordance with the general or public interest and not manifestly unreasonable.
The ECtHR observed that the application of the 1979 amendments to the Applicant’s property had significant repercussions on his enjoyment of his property because he was forced into a landlord-tenant relationship for a seemingly indefinite time and the maximum amount of rent permitted by law was less than one seventh of that which could be obtained on the rental market. Taking into account the increase in the standard of living in Malta since 1979 as well as the fact that less than 2% of the population were now requesting aid for social housing, the Court considered that the needs and general interest which had existed in 1979 had significantly decreased three decades later. The Court observed that when considering the national minimum wage and the national minimum pension in Malta, the rent which the particular tenants were paying amounted to less than 6% of their annual income.
The Court unanimously concluded that the Maltese State had committed a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention by failing to strike the requisite fair balance between the general interest of the community and the fundamental rights of the Applicant. The Maltese State had imposed a disproportionate and excessive burden upon the Applicant by forcing him to bear practically the whole cost of supplying housing accommodation to the particular tenants. The Court awarded the applicant EUR 11,550 as compensation for pecuniary damages and EUR 2,500 in respect of non-pecuniary damages.
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