Gozo lands claimed by Abbazia ‘deregistered in public interest’

Finance ministry says deregistration of property titles claimed by medieval foundation was made in public interest

The Maltese government has kicked back against accusations of discrimination by the company that took control of a vast swathe of lands in Gozo, under control of a medieval fiefdom, when it deregistered its title over parcels of lands in Nadur.

The finance ministry said it had acted in the public interest when it issued a legal notice that cut off at the knees the 17th century foundation’s controversial claim on the lands.

The constitutional case concerns the Abbazia di Sant Antonio delli Navarra, the foundation whose property titles are owned by the company Carravan Ltd – comprising the Stagno Navarra heirs, former magistrate Dennis Montebello, and lawyer Carmelo Galea.

Through the Abbazia’s so-called ‘rector’ – the lawyer Patrick Valentino – the company in question is calling on the government and the Lands Registrar to reinstate the foundation’s title in Nadur, and declare a breach of rights, with compensation for damages allegedly suffered.

The case was filed as a reaction to the introduction of Legal Notice 73 of 2022 in February, which resulted in the revocation of all land registrations in a large area of Nadur, which included the Abbazia’s titles.

The introduction of that Legal Notice had been prompted by complaints made by several of the affected area’s residents, whose title over the land is being challenged by the businessmen who have joined forces with the Abbazia heirs, who claim the lands are theirs.

But the finance ministry has insisted its legal notice does not deny the Abbazia or Carravan its right to private property as guaranteed by the European Convention for Human Rights.

“Deregistration does not impugn the principle of peaceful enjoyment of possession... it did not preclude the applicants from the property title they are claiming, if this even exists. For the same reasons, deregistration does not create either control of or interference with the property the applicants claim they own,” the State Advocate told the Court.

“The deregistration has made been in the public interest, especially in consideration of the objectives that land registrations are expected to achieve; and creates a justified balance between the general interest, and the interest of those who like the applicants had a property registered in their name.”

The Abbazia – a foundation created in the 1670s by the noblewoman Cosmana Navarra to administer the lands for her heirs – alleges that the government’s legal notice was published right before the 2022 general election, in a bid to satiate “private individuals occupying the land... who instead of having recourse to judicial fora, launched a campaign on the media and in street protests to put pressure on the Government, resulting in the legislation that is being impugned.”

In the year 1675, Navarra entrusted the control of her land to the Abbazia, and also granted the Archbishop the power to appoint a rector to administer the lands for the benefit of the foundation – specifically a male descendant of Cosmana’s nephew Federico or, in his absence, a priest.

Fast forward to 1992, when Richard Stagno Navarra – claiming to be a descendant of Cosmana Navarra – demanded the right to be the Abbazia’s rector. The Archbishop’s Curia initially resisted the claims, and it was only in 2013 that it obtained a court judgement in 2013 confirming the Archbishop’s right to appoint the rector.

But in 2017, much to the consternation of the residents and farmers of the Gozo lands concerned, Archbishop Charles Scicluna accepted the Stagno Navarras’ ancestry claims, appointing the rector of their choice, lawyer Patrick Valentino, for the sum of €200,000 that is supposed to be ‘spent’ in pious acts for the repose of the soul of Cosmana Navarra.

As rector, Valentino immediately set out to transfer the Abbazia’s lands to Carravan, the company now developing the lands, which it also does by challenging property titles of homeowners in Qala and Nadur, with residents fighting their pretensions in expensive court cases.

The legal notice froze these registrations, bringing a stalemate to proceedings that for the time being, stopping Carravan from putting out the land for development as it did in Qala.

The legal notice was always set to be challenged in the Maltese courts, given that the LRA (land registration area) in Nadur registered in 2019 gave rise to property registrations that brought with them “legitimate expectations” of asset value.

LRAs are designated areas in Malta where an effective title to land must be registered by those who own it. Notaries register property sales falling inside LRAs within two weeks, whether they are a first-time or subsequent registration.

This also means that pretenders to a property’s title can challenge any registration by filing a caution against it.

After 10 years pass the first registration, that title is converted into a guaranteed title – as long as no caution was filed against that title during that period.