Agriculture ministry working on landlord law to protect farmers from eviction

There are 60 separate cases in court against Maltese farmers who could face eviction from the land they work on

The ministry for agriculture is working on a new landlord law to stop farmers from being evicted from their agricultural land.

According to newspaper Illum, Minister Anton Refalo confirmed that government is working on a new law to protect farmers from eviction by landowners demanding high payments.

The reform concerns the Agricultural Leases Act, which used to grant tenants of agricultural leases and indefinite right of renewal.

However, a landmark judgement in the constitutional court last November declared that the Act breached owners’ rights to the peaceful enjoyment of their property.

Since November last year there have been 60 separate cases against Maltese farmers by the landowners who want to expel them from the agricultural land they work.

The agricultural leases after the constitutional ruling are being negotiated according to the current market rates, which are dependent on the demand for the land for recreational purposes. This is resulting in market prices that are not within the budget of the farmers.

Farming NGOs have repeatedly asked government for support on the matter, as landowners look to turn a quick profit by sending tenant farmers away from their land.

Last August, members of Koperattiva Rurali Manikata and Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi pleaded for government to tackle the issue in the same way it tackled the pre-1995 housing leases issue.

However, Refalo told Illum that no subsidy can be granted in this case, as was done to solve the pre-1995 evictions, due to complications surrounding EU definitions of state aid.

Instead, government is looking to a similar law in France as inspiration for Malta’s reform.

The landmark judgement

The case concerned a 5,000sq.m parcel of land and farmhouse, in Żabbar, acquired in 1982 by J & C Properties, along with another four properties, for Lm26,000 then. The land was leased to Nazzareno Pulis, at an annual rent of €58.23, remaining so leased until today.

The owners filed a claim that their rights were being breached because they were not being afforded adequate compensation. The first court had upheld that claim, awarding the company €100,000 in damages.

The State Advocate appealed but the Constitutional Court rejected the arguments put forward, save for that concerning the awarded damages, effectively slashing the sum to €22,000.

While such restrictions on ownership rights had been intended for “social purposes”, the Court asked whether the owner was receiving adequate and proportionate compensation. Under the current regime, the owner could only claim back his land for farming purposes or to develop the site, save for other instances where shortcomings were proved on the part of the lessee.

This meant that if the owner did not intend to farm the land or lacked the capital to develop it, he could not claim his property back, unless the lessee agreed in writing to the termination of the lease.

The Court therefore ruled that the lessees could no longer avail themselves of the law to renew the lease. Whether any eviction follows, will fall within the competence of the ordinary courts.