Recently, I was interviewed for a TV programme to do with the 2019 Residential Leases Act. Firstly, I was asked to give an account of our experiences from when we were tenants.
As I watched myself describe, for the umpteenth time, in my faltering Maltese, the traumatic experience of having a precautionary garnishee order slapped on our bank account, and my salary reduced to the minimum wage, simply for disputing an incorrect bill which wasn’t even in our name, I realised that the implications of what this actually meant were being lost on anyone who has not endured the same experience.
It’s not just about the practical implications – the lack of a bank account, our eight year old son having to take 80 euro in cash on his first day to school because we had no cheque book facility, having to attend court once a month for 2 years, the lonely sense of being on your own with this – nobody else seems to understand why you are so upset... Unless you have been through a similar experience yourself, you are never going to understand that the worst of it all is the huge sense of injustice that stays with you forever.
Imagine, you are overcharged by 101% on your Arms bill by the sole, state owned utility billing company. Your bills go up from 100 euro per month to 150 euro per month to 200 euro per month and still there are arrears. You ask your landlord whether increasing the number of occupants from zero to 5 on the Arms bill will make a difference to this extortionate cost. He tells you no. You finally decide to do your own research because you cannot believe that the cost of electricity and water is so much more than the cost of electricity and gas in the depths of a Scottish winter.
And that's when you discover the Arms / tenant scam. The landlord does not want to leave a paper trail showing the presence of rent paying tenants in their so called empty second property because they do not want to declare their rental income. Arms – the sole state owned utility billing company - wants to continue in the age old Maltese art of fleecing the foreigner. The foreign tenant is fair game, innit. Yes, the Maltese tax coffers will take a hit but that will more than amply be compensated for by the thousands of euro in overcharge paid by the hapless foreign tenant. So what if a Maltese single parent or a pensioner is asked to pay 200 euro per month on their Arms bill? They’re just collateral damage on the altar of making sure that the foreigner pays for being a foreigner.
The ACL fee scam. The mobile teacher scam. The people who lost their homes because of developers breaking the law. The people who lost loved ones when their homes collapsed in 2000 and 20004. A public inquiry into whether the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia could have been avoided only happening because of pressure from the Council of Europe, and even then the Caruana Galizia family are not consulted on who should be leading the inquiry. So many injustices over the decades –it would not be possible to list them all.
And what does our justice system do? Why, it compounds the injustices. It continues to add unimaginable insult to unimaginable injury. Reopening old wounds. Robotic tickboxing. Paying lip service to the process of serving justice. Paying attention only to the letter of the law and not its spirit. Countless judge after judge treating the law of the land like it’s this static status quo which doesn’t ever evolve and set new precedent on which to build further precedent. For example, countless pre 1995 landlords having to take their cases to the Maltese Constitutional Court and having to prove their case from scratch again and again.
The UK Supreme Court was a joy to behold recently when it decided on the lawfulness of the UK government proroguing parliament for 5 weeks. It held the UK Executive to fearsome account, showing no fear or favour to anything but the spirit of the UK unwritten Constitution.
In Malta, whataboutery is the common response to your recounting of your experiences. Why are you making such a fuss about a utility bill? Just pay up, why don’t you. Ah yes, you want the first three years’ arrears too? You should have phoned the BRO, you know – then your house wouldn’t have collapsed. Where were you when Karen Grech was killed? Or Raymond Caruana?
Very few people – including the Maltese judiciary – seem to see the kernel of the principle at stake every time there is an injustice. The principle of justice being done and being seen to be done is nonexistent in Malta. You see, we have never experienced what it feels like to have a functioning justice system.
Viktoria Marinova’s killer was found, prosecuted and sentenced before the 1 year anniversary of her murder. Here we have the dragging of feet. Two years after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, we still do not know who commissioned her murder.
A functioning justice system is a vital pillar of democracy. People need to feel that they have access to effective redress. If justice is never served or if justice is delayed then the effects of this on the person suffering the injustice are profound. If justice is denied, they are forever going to feel bereft of security, of serenity. The effects of this on society, on the common good are considerable. Everything goes when anything goes.