The Malta Independent 15 August 2022, Monday

Agricultural leases board orders eviction of farmers from field rented on pre-1995 lease

Albert Galea Tuesday, 3 August 2021, 07:55 Last update: about 2 years ago

In a landmark judgement, the Agricultural leases board has ordered the eviction of two farmers from a field which they were renting under a protected pre-1995 lease.

The judgement means that Nazzareno Pulis and Antonia Pulis, whose family has been renting a 5,000 square metre or so field in Zabbar from J&C Properties Limited for a number of decades, must leave the field by the end of this month.

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The Pulis were paying Lm25 in annual rent under the lease agreement, which was signed in 1983 and which was payable every year on 15 August.

Malta’s courts had already decreed – in a landmark first last year – that the plaintiff company’s fundamental rights to enjoyment of property had been breached, and hence awarded J&C Properties Limited 100,000 in compensation from the state – an amount which was later reduced to 22,000 after an appeal.

Last year’s judgement had already sounded a major warning to farmers, with many agricultural leases suddenly coming under imminent threat of legal cases on similar merits.

Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi had said that the judgement sets a historical precedent which could lead to farmers being evicted and having their livelihoods threatened, warning that the sector is now facing danger and uncertainty.

In fact, a few months down the line from the Constitutional Court’s decision, the Agricultural Leases Board has given further reason for farmers to be fearful.

In her decision last week, Magistrate Simone Grech served the Pulis’ with an eviction notice and said that they had 30 days from the date of the decision to hand the field back to the landowner.

The decision, Magistrate Grech wrote, is on the basis of the decision which was reached in the Constitutional case which found that the landowner’s fundamental rights had been breached.

It is the latest development in the legal sphere which puts pre-1995 leases under the microscope.

Such a lease agreement falls under the provisions of the Agricultural Leases Act (Chapter 199 of the Laws of Malta), which restrict the amendment or addition to the conditions imposed on an agricultural lease as well as the ability for owners to resume possession of their land. It also nullifies any clause or condition which runs contrary to the provisions of the Act, thus precluding agricultural land owners from reaching agreements with their tenants which go counter to the Act as they can later be declared null and void.

Under Maltese law, landlords whose property has been rented out prior to 1 June 1995 have no right to refuse the renewal of the lease and have to make do with what is known as ‘fair rent’, with no way of increasing rents to reflect market rates.

Reforms earlier this year however aimed to bring these rent contracts to an end, with property landlords bound under pre-1995 leases being able to claim up to 2% of a property’s market value in rent and with the government absorbing much of the additional rent costs which families would face.

The reforms were however targeted more at the housing sector, rather than the agricultural sector – and the Agricultural Leases Act remains un-amended since 2017 – before the initial constitutional judgement was handed down.

The government had, in reaction to the initial judgement, given a generic statement where Agriculture Minister Anton Refalo said that they were working to address the “challenges” faced by this sector – but nothing in the way of rent reform has been forthcoming.

 

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