CASE OF GRIMA v. MALTA (European Court of Human Rights) 38660/20

The case concerns an imposed lease as a result of the application of Chapter 69 of the Laws of Malta whereby the applicants who co-own the property no. 20, Church Street, Żebbug, at different shares were receiving 212 euros (EUR) per annum (based on the 1914 market value), increased every three years according to the index of inflation as of 2009. The lease may be renewed indefinitely and inherited, in fact in 2014 the original tenants passed away and their son inherited the tenancy. According to the court‑appointed expert the rental potential between 2015 and 2019 was EUR 50,750, while that actually received was EUR 1,027.


FIRST SECTION
CASE OF GRIMA v. MALTA
(Application no. 38660/20)
JUDGMENT
STRASBOURG
22 September 2022

This judgment is final but it may be subject to editorial revision.

In the case of Grima v. Malta,

The European Court of Human Rights (First Section), sitting as a Committee composed of:
Erik Wennerström, President,
Lorraine Schembri Orland,
Ioannis Ktistakis, Judges,
and Liv Tigerstedt, Deputy Section Registrar,

Having regard to:

the application (no. 38660/20) against the Republic of Malta lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) on 31 August 2020 by three Maltese nationals, relevant details listed in the appended table, (“the applicants”) who were represented by Dr M. Camilleri and Dr E. Debono, lawyers practising in Valletta;

the decision to give notice of the complaints concerning Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention alone and in conjunction with Article 13 to the Maltese Government (“the Government”), represented by their Agents, Dr C. Soler, State Advocate, and Dr J. Vella, Advocate at the Office of the State Advocate and to declare inadmissible the remainder of the application;

the parties’ observations;

Having deliberated in private on 30 August 2022,

Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:

SUBJECT MATTER OF THE CASE

1. The case concerns an imposed lease as a result of the application of Chapter 69 of the Laws of Malta whereby the applicants who co-own the property no. 20, Church Street, Żebbug, at different shares were receiving 212 euros (EUR) per annum (based on the 1914 market value), increased every three years according to the index of inflation as of 2009. The lease may be renewed indefinitely and inherited, in fact in 2014 the original tenants passed away and their son inherited the tenancy. According to the court‑appointed expert the rental potential between 2015 and 2019 was EUR 50,750, while that actually received was EUR 1,027.

2. The applicants instituted constitutional redress proceedings complaining of a breach of their property rights and noting that their claim only concerned the period following the death of the original tenants in 2014.

By a judgment of 10 October 2019, the Civil Court (First Hall) in its constitutional competence found a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention and awarded the applicants EUR 35,000 in compensation. It declared that the tenant ought to be ordered (sic.) not to rely on the impugned law to maintain title to the property. On appeal, by a judgment of 27 March 2020, the Constitutional Court reformed the first-instance judgment by reducing the compensation to EUR 15,000 (together with 5 % interest as of the date of its judgment) to cover the period between 2015 and 2019, that is only from when the tenant had inherited the property by application of Chapter 69 of the Laws of Malta, as that had been precisely the applicants’ complaint as set out in their application to the court. 1/4 of the costs of the proceedings at both instances were to be borne by the applicants.

3. By a judgment of 2 December 2020 the Rent Regulation Board ordered the eviction of the tenant within thirty days, as a result of which the property was returned to the applicants. None of the parties appealed.

4. The applicants complained that they were still the victims of a violation of their property rights as well as a violation of their right to an effective remedy, invoking Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention and Article 13 of the Convention.

THE COURT’S ASSESSMENT

I. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 1 OF PROTOCOL No. 1 TO THE CONVENTION

5. The applicants complained under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention that they remained a victim of the upheld violation due to the low amount of compensation awarded.

6. The Court reiterates its general principles concerning victim status as set out in Apap Bologna v. Malta (no. 46931/12, §§ 41 and 43, 30 August 2016). In the present case, there has been an acknowledgment of a violation by the domestic courts. As to whether appropriate and sufficient redress was granted, the Court observes that the market rent from 2015 to 2019 according to the court‑appointed expert was estimated at EUR 50,750. Thus, even though the market value is not applicable, and the rent valuations may be decreased due to the legitimate aim at issue and other relevant factors, the Court considers that a global award of EUR 15,000 covering pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage is insufficient. That is enough to find that the redress provided by the Constitutional Court in the present case did not offer sufficient relief to the applicants, who thus retain victim status for the purposes of this complaint (see, mutatis mutandis, Portanier v. Malta, no. 55747/16, § 24, 27 August 2019).

7. The Court notes that this complaint is not manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention or inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.

8. The general principles concerning rent control as applicable in the present case have been summarized in Zammit and Attard Cassar v. Malta (no. 1046/12, §§ 57-66, 30 July 2015), and Marshall and Others v. Malta (no. 79177/16, § 39, 11 February 2020).

9. Having regard to the findings of the domestic courts relating to Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, the Court considers that it is not necessary to re‑examine in detail the merits of the complaint. It finds that, as established by the domestic courts, the applicant was made to bear a disproportionate burden. Moreover, as the Court has already found above (see paragraph 6), the redress provided by the domestic courts did not offer sufficient relief to the applicants.

10. There has accordingly been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention.

II. OTHER ALLEGED VIOLATION UNDER WELL-ESTABLISHED CASE-LAW

11. The applicants also raised another complaint which is covered by the well‑established case-law of the Court. This complaint is not manifestly ill‑founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention, nor is it inadmissible on any other grounds. Accordingly, it must be declared admissible. Having examined all the material before it and noting the Court’s conclusions at paragraph 6 above, the Court concludes that it discloses a violation of Article 13 of the Convention in conjunction with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 in the light of its findings in, for example, Apap Bologna (cited above, §§ 89-91) and Portanier (cited above, §§ 55-56).

APPLICATION OF ARTICLE 41 OF THE CONVENTION

12. The applicants claimed 81,096 euros (EUR) as pecuniary damage based on the court‑appointed expert’s valuation and in accordance with the calculation set out in Cauchi v. Malta (no. 14013/19, 25 March 2021) covering rental losses as of 1987 and EUR 10,000 in respect of non‑pecuniary damage. They further claimed EUR 903.40 in respect of costs and expenses incurred before the domestic courts, as per taxed bill of costs.

13. The Government submitted that there had been no explanation as to the applicants’ calculation in respect of pecuniary damage, which moreover appeared to concern the period since 1987 and not post 2014 as claimed before the domestic courts. Furthermore, they considered that simply adding up the alleged loss of rent would yield the applicants an unjustified profit for the following reasons: (i) they were only estimates, and not amounts that the applicants would certainly have obtained; (ii) it could not be assumed that the property would have been rented out for the whole period if the tenants had not been protected by law ‑ particularly given the boom in property prices over recent years; (iii) the tenants had had to maintain the property in a good state of repair (iv) the measure had been in the public interest and thus the market value was not called for. The Government also considered that the claim for non-pecuniary damage was excessive and that no proof had been put forward in relation to the payment of the domestic court costs.

14. The Court observes that the Constitutional Court found a violation for the period subsequent to 2014, namely from when the tenant had inherited the property as that had been precisely the applicants’ complaint as set out in their application to the court. The complaint communicated to the Government and in respect of which the Court found a violation in the present case solely concerned that period. The remaining part of the application having been declared inadmissible by the President of the Section acting in a Single-Judge formation. With that in mind, the Court has made all the considerations applicable in this type of cases, as set out in Cauchi (cited above, §§ 102-07). Noting in particular that the award of the Constitutional Court remains payable if not yet paid, the Court awards the applicants jointly, EUR 15,000 in pecuniary damage and EUR 2,400, plus any tax that may be chargeable on the latter amount, in non-pecuniary damage.

15. Having regard to the documents in its possession, and noting that domestic court costs, according to the taxed bill of costs, remain payable if not yet paid, the Court considers it reasonable to award EUR 903, jointly, plus any tax that may be chargeable to the applicants, for costs and expenses before the domestic courts.

FOR THESE REASONS, THE COURT, UNANIMOUSLY,

1. Declares the application admissible;

2. Holds that there has been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention;

3. Holds that there has been a violation of Article 13 of the Convention in conjunction with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1;

4. Holds

(a) that the respondent State is to pay the applicants, jointly, within three months, the following amounts:

(i) EUR 15,000 (fifteen thousand euros), in respect of pecuniary damage;

(ii) EUR 2,400 (two thousand four hundred euros), plus any tax that may be chargeable, in respect of non-pecuniary damage;

(iii) EUR 903 (nine hundred and three euros), plus any tax that may be chargeable to the applicants, in respect of costs and expenses;

(b) that from the expiry of the above-mentioned three months until settlement simple interest shall be payable on the above amounts at a rate equal to the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank during the default period plus three percentage points;

5. Dismisses the remainder of the applicants’ claim for just satisfaction.

Done in English, and notified in writing on 22 September 2022, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.

Liv Tigerstedt                    Erik Wennerström
Deputy Registrar                     President

_________

APPENDIX

No. Applicant’s Name Year of birth Nationality Place of residence
1. Joseph GRIMA 1962 Maltese Pembroke
2. Doreen GRIMA 1965 Maltese Marsascala
3. Georgina GRIMA 1938 Maltese Valletta

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