Valletta shops fighting eviction claim Church, not State, owns land

Shopkeepers tell court land outside St John Cathedral grnted to Catholic Church by Napoleon Bonaparte

Valletta shops are facing eviction due to security concerns for the Cathedral museum extension
Valletta shops are facing eviction due to security concerns for the Cathedral museum extension

Lawyers for a group of Valletta business owners who are fighting eviction by the Lands Department, in order to make way for a €10 million project, have claimed before the Administrative Review Tribunal that the land in question does not even belong to the State, but to the Church, making reference to a contract dating back to Napoleonic times.

Magistrate Charmaine Galea presided over the first sittings of a group of cases filed by several Valletta business owners served with eviction notices late last year.

In December, MaltaToday reported that the Lands Authority had started terminating commercial leases for shops around the St John’s Co-Cathedral, in connection with the Cathedral museum project’s security.

Letters of termination were issued to shops on St Lucy Street in Valletta, many of them long established, informing shopkeepers that their tenancies were coming to an end.

In the letters, the Lands Department said their eviction was necessary and in the public interest, for the security of the St John’s Co-Cathedral museum project and the extension of administrative offices intended for the Co-Cathedral’s foundation.

Lawyer Edward Debono, appearing for the tenants together with lawyers Antoine Cremona and Chiara Frendo, asked the Tribunal for a stay of proceedings in the eviction case until the issue of ownership is decided.

Cremona explained that the issue of who actually owns the property and therefore who has the power to file for eviction of tenants, is an issue “which to date is contested and historically not resolved from the time of the departure of the Order of St. John and the French from Malta.”

The issue has been pending since 1798, he said. Debono gave a the Tribunal a brief historical overview of the issue, telling the magistrate that Napoleon Bonaparte had given the Cathedral and its grounds to the Catholic Church after they had recognised General Vaubois as Commandant en chef des Isles de Malte et du Goze, and not the Maltese Church, with whom they had come into conflict with by instituting French revolutionary reforms and plundering Maltese churches of precious artifacts and paintings.

“Before this case can proceed this issue must first be resolved. Therefore, the applicant is requesting a stay of proceedings until this issue is determined,” Debono said.

Lawyer Ramona Attard, appearing for the Lands Authority, declared that from the evidence that would be exhibited before the Tribunal it would be shown that the eviction order was made according to law and in line with the existing contracts and that therefore there was no need for a stay of the proceedings before the tribunal.

The magistrate, in view of the arguments put forward, ordered that in the next sitting a representative of the defendant authority testify about the title and whether the contract over the property had changed any legal position.

Attard said she disagreed that the plaintiff’s interpretation of the contract meant that the eviction couldn’t take place. She submitted that the appeal was about the eviction decision. “The issue is: did the Authority have the power to carry out this eviction?” she said.

The lawyer also argued that the lease of at least one of the properties had lapsed due to non-payment, but this was contested by Debono who, after consulting with his client, said that the rent had been paid, making reference to a receipt. Attard rebutted that the receipt was not relevant and that what mattered was a judicial letter sent by the authority.

Two of the plaintiffs informed the tribunal that they had paid for permits relating to tables and chairs outside their property which were valid up till December 2022. Debono argued that it didn’t make sense for the government to issue permits to a business whilst at the same time claiming that the business’ lease was not valid.

The case will continue in February.