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Government move to help band club stops court from being able to decide other case

Malta law courts
Photo: Berthold Werner

An appeals court postponed its decision on whether to evict the Stella Maris Band club from their leased Sliema premises because of recent changes to the law that were approved by Parliament to “safeguard” band clubs from eviction.

Judge Anthony Ellul said on Friday that he was going to have to suspend handing down judgment – even though it was ready to be delivered – on an appeal filed by property owners against the Stella Maris band club in light of legal amendments brought into force three days earlier on 11 July.

Judge Ellul deferred the case to October in order to allow the owners time to analyse the legal amendments and assess their position at law.

These legal amendments came about after a separate judgment, also handed down by Judge Ellul in April, which upheld the decision of another court and ordered the De Paule Band Club in Paola to vacate the leased premises over unauthorised structural alterations, finally ending a 20-year legal battle initiated by the owners.

Soon after, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici told The Times of Malta that the government was going to step in and address issues relating to properties leased by band club owners to ensure that the club was not going to lose its premises.

These changes, approved by Parliament last month, were meant to give a greater degree of recognition to the cultural contribution of musical societies, he said. Yet, the move meant that Parliament intervened to stop the court from deciding on another case a few days later, resulting in Judge Anthony Ellul being forced to postpone a decision that he had made on a 10-year case.

Historically, a number of band clubs benefit from “old” leases which, under laws passed in the 1970s became automatically renewable, typically for unreasonably low annual rents. Under that law, which has been repeatedly found by the European Court of Human Rights to be in breach of owners’ human rights, one of the few grounds for eviction of a tenant under a protected lease was breach of contract including a structural alterations clause.

As a result of the new law, band clubs can now continue to use the premises even after a court orders their eviction for such structural alterations as long as they meet a number of conditions and that they pay a rent 10 times higher than they were paying before the order, up to a maximum of one per cent of the property’s value.

The legal amendments also impact pending court cases with structural alterations for philharmonic or social purposes done without the owner’s consent and in breach of the contract – an argument that used to be grounds for eviction – no longer being grounds for eviction.

Instead, under these legal amendments, the club can simply provide a guarantee to allow the owners to restore the property once the lease is up.  Yet legal sources who spoke to The Shift News said the law fails to recognise that as a result of the 1970s laws, these leases continue to automatically renew indefinitely.

The owners of the Paola property were furious at these amendments and described them as “intrinsically and fundamentally, legally, politically and morally incorrect as it rewards persons who breach” the law.

In the case of the Stella Maris band club, the property owners had turned to the Rent Board and pointed out that unauthorised works, an additional storey, had been done on the premises and requested the club’s eviction before the lease was up in April 2008.

They were receiving €174.70 (Lm75) in annual rent for a double-fronted two-storey property in Annunciation Square, Sliema – a highly sought-after area.

Labour MP Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi is the club’s lawyer, while Labour MP Michael Falzon is the club’s president.

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