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Expropriated property left unused for 25 years, because of squatters

Owners get €200,000 in damages

The property in Archbishop Street, Valletta. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

The property in Archbishop Street, Valletta. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Two companies which jointly own three properties in Valletta expropriated in 1993 but never used have been awarded €200,000 in moral damages after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in their favour.

The property had been expropriated to relocate the Attorney General’s Office but the project never went ahead because squatters were occupying parts of the building.

The European Court of Human Rights found in favour of Tagliaferro & Sons Limited and Coleiro Brothers Limited, who jointly owned a share of two properties in Strait Street and one in Archbishop Street.

The applicant companies argued that their property had been expropriated without satisfying the public interest requirement. Furthermore, they had not been paid any compensation.

The court heard how through a President’s declaration in February 1993, the government had declared its intention of acquiring by title of absolute purchase the three properties for public purposes.

No compensation offer was made at the time. The public purpose later transpired to be that of using the properties, together with other properties also expropriated, as government offices.

The government had intended to develop the properties in question but was unable to take over the premises since parts, including other adjacent property, were occupied by squatters.

Between 1996 and 2007, the Attorney General repeatedly requested the Lands Department to take steps to vacate the premises. In turn, the latter department wrote to the Housing Authority requesting it to provide alternative accommodation to the lessees and the squatters.

Given that not all the occupiers had applied for alternative accommodation, as expected by the authorities, the relocation process was delayed. In 2001, eviction orders were issued to the occupiers of the premises which was eventually vacated in 2007.

In the meantime, the construction permit in relation to the planned project issued in 1996 expired. In September 2000, another application was submitted but never approved.

In 2009, the government issued a new declaration for the expropriation of the properties, offering €17,300 for the properties in Strait Street and €21,700 for that in Archbishop Street.

Using the controversial purchase of a half the undivided share of the property in Old Mint Street from Marco Gaffarena as a yardstick, the companies said their properties were valued at €590,000 rather than the offered €39,017.

The government told the court that the fact that the property had not yet been used did not cancel the original public interest behind the taking and that the comparison to recent purchases of nearby buildings was uncalled for.

The court ruled that the original intention behind the expropriation of the property was in the public interest. However, the property remained unused for 25 years. The authorities did not take the matter seriously as it took them 14 years to vacate the premises.

Notwithstanding the fact that the properties remained empty for so long, another declaration was issued in 2009 when it was evident that the project was not viable.

The court ordered the State to pay each company €100,000 as moral damages, in the absence of the restitution of the property. It also ordered the authorities to pay €14,500 to cover court expenses.

The companies were represented by lawyer Ian Refalo, Silvio Grech, Pierre Lofaro and Mark Simiana while the Attorney General appeared for the government.

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