MaltaToday | 04 May 2008 | More landowners take government to European court over 1974 expropriation

NEWS | Sunday, 04 May 2008

More landowners take government to European court over 1974 expropriation

Charlot Zahra

Eleven Maltese nationals have presented a case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg claiming the expropriation of their two plots of land in Ghaxaq 27 years ago was not necessary for a public purpose, and that the compensation awarded was not fair and adequate.
In their application, lodged 4 October 2006, they also claim a violation of the reasonable time requirement in the proceedings before the Maltese courts.
By a Governor’s declaration of 1974, two plots of land (plot A measuring 71.5 square metres and plot B measuring 1,930.3 square metres) were expropriated for a public purpose, and the applicants offered Lm81 (approx. €189) (plot A) and Lm2,905 (approx. €6,762) for plot B.
The applicants refused the offer and in 1990 proceedings were instituted before the Land Arbitration Board (LAB).
In 1995 the LAB ordered the applicants to transfer the two plots of land to the government by outright sale, establishing compensation at Lm227.75 (approx. €529) for Plot A and Lm7,099.94 (approx. €16,512) for Plot B.
The applicants submitted that according to an architect’s 1993 valuation, the land was worth Lm105,000 (approx. €243,850).
The applicants appealed against this decision, but the Appeals Court declared the appeal null and void as no appeal could be entered against the decision of the LAB.
In the meantime, building permits had been granted by the administration in on the land situated near the plots of land at issue; however, the administration had not considered that Plots A and B could be used for building purposes.
The applicants claimed that from 1974 to 1998 (the year when they instituted constitutional proceedings) the plots were not been utilised for any public purpose.
In 1998 they filed a writ in the Civil Court (First Hall) in its constitutional jurisdiction claiming the property was not used for a public purpose and the amount determined by the LAB was not adequate compensation for their property.
They further complained that the government, which alone had the possibility of initiating proceedings before the LAB to determine the amount of compensation due, had waited 16 years before instituting these proceedings, in breach of the reasonable time principle.
In 2005, the Civil Court dismissed their complaints, claiming the land was used to form part of a road, more than 90% of it to make a public garden, and the rest for a bus shelter, a commemorative plaque, a niche and four garages, therefore the expropriated land had been taken for a public purpose.
The court also held the LAB had determined the compensation according to established objective criteria found in the law, which were not arbitrary or capricious.
It however found there had been an excessive delay for the start of proceedings before the LAB and granted the 11 applicants jointly Lm300 (approximately €700).
The applicants appealed to the Constitutional Court claiming the expropriation was not effected in the public interest, and that the court had mistaken the land at issue for another, previously expropriated plot of land. They further argued the compensation granted was far below its market value and requested the court to vary the compensation granted by the Civil Court for violation of the reasonable time principle.
On 6 April 2006 the Constitutional Court dismissed the appeal, upholding the first court’s reading of the exhibited cartographic and photographic evidence.
It further maintained that even if the land had remained unused for a period of time, this was normal in housing estate projects. The court also held that estimates the applicants had provided were relatively recent and based on the current market value, which was not always decisive according to Strasbourg case-law; whereas the LAB’s evaluation referred to the real value of the land in 1974, the year when the land was expropriated. Consequently it found the claim manifestly ill-founded.
As to the last claim, the court noted that although it appeared that a request for a variation of the compensation granted had been made in the appeal application, this had not been listed as a ground of appeal and, consequently, it could not take cognisance of the matter.

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