Chief Justice rules law protecting band clubs breaching lease conditions violates rights

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Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti has ruled that a controversial 2018 law introduced to protect band clubs from eviction even after carrying out unauthorised structural works breaches landlords’ fundamental rights.

The Chief Justice issued his ruling in a case filed against the Stella Maris Band Club in Sliema – whose president is Minister Michael Falzon – and the State Advocate.

The landlords had first filed legal proceedings before the Rent Regulation Board in June 2008 over the unauthorised works carried out by the band club at the Annunciation Square building. The works were covered by a permit, but the owners had not even been informed.

The board ruled against the landlords, who filed an appeal. But the government then introduced its controversial amendments to the Civil Code, protecting band clubs who had occupied a lease for at least 30 years from eviction for any reason other than the failure to pay the rent due.

Just three months after the amendments were introduced a Court of Appeal upheld the landlords’ complaint, only to state that it could not approve the termination of the lease. The landlords thus sought a constitutional reference.

The Stella Maris Band Club and the State Advocate both argued that the amendments had a legitimate aim – striking a balance between the interests of the landlords, the general public and the band club – and thus did not breach the Constitution or the European Convention of Human Rights.

In his testimony, Falzon emphasised the club’s social purpose, and said that the premises were regularly used for philanthropic and other events without requesting payment.

The Chief Justice said that a retroactive application of a new law could be permitted, but only if this was justified by a compelling public interest. He also recognised that the protection of cultural heritage served in the public interest, and that band clubs did form part of this heritage.

However, he insisted that there were no compelling public interest reasons for the amendment, which did not protect band clubs from the effect of rising property values to help them survive, but instead protected them from repercussions brought about by consciously breaching other contractual obligations.

He thus ruled that the amendment breached the landlords’ right to a fair hearing and their right to enjoy their own property, and that consequently, the band club could not claim the protections provided by the amendment.