The number of reported cases in which landlords abuse tenants’ rights, such as by changing locks to the premises without the tenant’s permission or dismissing tenants before the contract expires, is on the rise, according to the police.
According to data provided to The Shift by the Malta Police Force, there were 183 reported cases in 2019, which increased to 228 in 2020 and 280 in 2021.
In the first six months of 2022, 163 reported cases were reported – in six months, the reports match those in 2019 for a year.
The data was provided by the police after The Shift sent questions to follow up on an article in which the administrator of the Malta Tenant Support group, Johanna Axisa MacRae, said the police force is not legally empowered to investigate forced evictions unless a complaint is filed.
A spokesperson for the police told The Shift that the force does not hold any data on forced eviction cases since it is not even “directly stipulated in Maltese law”.
The data that the police force does have is about reports on cases which amount to breaches of Article 85 of the Criminal Code, which describes the legal consequences when a landlord “unlawfully” interferes with a property being leased by a tenant.
The spokesperson also said a contract between the landlord and the tenant must be registered with the Housing Authority for the police to take action on a report, following which the police would investigate and, if thought to be necessary, take action in court.
“If there is no registered contract between the landlord and the tenant, the tenant or the police refer it to the Housing Authority, who will then investigate,” he said.
“If no contract is registered, the Housing Authority will then file a complaint to the Commissioner of Police and the case will be heard during the Housing Authority Court sitting, where there will be a Housing Authority legal representative for the prosecution,” the spokesperson added.
In 2021, the Housing Authority filed 36 such complaints with the police commissioner, which will be heard during an “ad-hoc sitting”.
When reached for comment, MacRae’s first reaction was to state that “these figures must represent the tip of the iceberg”.
“From my experience, tenants who report a breach of Article 85 of the Criminal Code are assertive and take certain legal protections for granted because this is what they have become used to in their native countries. Foreign tenants from less developed countries would likely not be aware that they have any legal protection if they are forcefully evicted,” MacRae said.
The administrator of the Malta Tenants Support group also said the increase in reported cases might either mean that there was an increase of breaches or that tenants have become more aware of their legal rights.
“The current scenario of tenants making a report at a police station, then filing a complaint, then attending court or challenging the Police Commissioner if the Police decide not to prosecute is cumbersome and quite frankly detached from reality,” MacRae argued.
A 2022 report compiled on behalf of the Housing Authority, the second edition of the Residential Rental Study, suggests that the average waiting time for a case being heard at the Housing Authority’s Rent Regulation Board is 5.7 months.
“Where are the tenants, sometimes with children or pets, going to live in the meantime?”