Pensioner denied access to justice by PA misdirection?

DOI Reuben Piscopo

A pensioner claims he has been denied access to justice since he cannot pay the fees to appeal a decision by the Planning Authority. He claims he was told by PA staff that he needed to get the services of a lawyer and an architect to see the appeal through.

Emanuel Calleja, a pensioner and resident of Binja Buqana in Mtarfa, contacted Newsbook.com.mt complaining that he was helpless to do anything to combat an application which had been approved by the Planning Authority. The man said that he had been flagging up structural issues within the building for close to two decades before the Government undertook studies and verified that it was, in fact, not as safe as they had initially thought.

According to Mr Calleja, when he contacted the PA, Infrastructure Minister Dr Ian Borg, and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, all he got was an Enforcement Manager telling him that if he couldn’t pay the €200 fee, plus an architect and a lawyer, then he couldn’t appeal the decision. “How can I pay €200 when my pension is €500 a month?” exclaimed Mr Calleja. The reply, he claims, was trite: “There’s nothing we can do about it.” His appeals to the Prime Minister and to Minister Ian Borg, he said, went unheeded after an initial request for contact numbers.

Newsbook.com.mt contacted lawyer Dr Ian Spiteri Bailey for clarification as to whether or not this constitutes a lack of access to justice. The question was basic: Is justice possible only if you can afford it?. The lawyer said that there are always legal aids for cases like this, adding that the system has its kinks but it should work.

When asked whether this was a common case, where a pensioner cannot afford legal representation, he said that it was not a common case, but it did occasionally happen. However, he could not say that there was no chance of representation because it is not unheard of for lawyers, even if not legal aids, to decide to take on a case regardless of the client’s financial status.

Newsbook.com.mt also contacted former MEPA CEO, Dr Ian Stafrace who shed more light on the issue of appeals. In answer to whether individuals can appeal PA decisions, his response was a resounding yes. “When you have a headache, you can choose to take a Panadol, or you can choose to go to the Doctor,” Dr Stafrace explained. Just because many people prefer to have architects and lawyers on their side when appealing, it does not mean that appealing as an individual should incur someone more costs than the minimum €200 charge, with a maximum cap of €3,000 in the case of the applicants themselves having to pay 5% of the total cost.

Dr Stafrace said that, to his knowledge, there has never been an instance where someone could not pay the fees to appeal a decision, but if it is the case that the fee is not paid, than the appeal is nullified. There are also provisions, however, for an applicant to pay off the fee in installments, rather than altogether.