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Government breached noble’s property rights

The property is known as Palazzo Bonici and has housed the Manoel Theatre’s bar and restaurant for many years. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The property is known as Palazzo Bonici and has housed the Manoel Theatre’s bar and restaurant for many years. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

A noblewoman was awarded €160,000 by the European Court of Human Rights yesterday after it ruled the Maltese Government had breached her property rights.

The court described the sum as “just satisfaction” in the case of Agnes Gera de Petri Testaferrata Bonici Għaxaq vs Malta.

Her case concerned a property known as Palazzo Bonici in Valletta, which for many years has housed the Manoel Theatre’s bar and restaurant.

It is situated on the corner of Triq l-Ifran and Triq it-Teatru, next to the theatre.

An order was issued by the colonial government in 1958 to take control of the property, subject to paying annual compensation to the applicant’s family.

The applicant’s ancestors had refused to hand over the keys of the building and it was left unused until 1972, when the badly deteriorated edifice was forced open by the Mintoff government.

Subsequently a theatre restaurant was housed in the basement and another floor was added to house the Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, a government foundation for promoting nat-ional heritage.

The court noted that Government did not institute the relevant compensation proceedings before the Land Arbitration Board until 1976, some 18 years after the property takeover order was issued.

These proceedings came to nothing and were suspended indefinitely on October 10, 1996.

Constitutional redress proceedings started in 1996. They were concluded in favour of the applicant in 1999 and confirmed on appeal on January 8, 2007.

The Governor’s declaration of 1958 was declared null and void and the Government was ordered to release the property.

At an unspecified date after that judgment, the noblewoman obtained an eviction order against the authorities, only for the Government to issue a fresh expropriation order, this time offering an annual recognition rent of Lm21,000 (approximately €49,000).

Taking the case to the ECHR, the applicant argued that this new expropriation was unlawful and the annual rent offered by the Government did not reflect the commercial value of the property.

In the court’s principal judgment of April 5, 2011, Malta was found to have violated Article 6:1 (right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time) and Article 1 of Protocol 1 (protection of property) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ECHR did not entertain the applicant’s compensation claim for the property’s value and for loss of rent from the date of the Constitutional Court judgment because it was still subject to pending domestic proceedings.

The applicant, who holds the titles of Marchioness of San Vincenzo Ferreri and Baroness of Qlejja, has now been awarded a total of €190,000 by Strasbourg judges.

In the 2011 judgment, the ECHR held that the Maltese Government was to pay the applicant €25,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damage, which refers to damages for “pain and suffering”. It also ruled that the Government pay her €5,000 for costs and expenses.

Yesterday’s judgment concerned the question of just satisfaction (Article 41 of the Convention) in respect of pecuniary damage (damages that can be quantified in monetary terms).

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