Judge Mintoff’s agricultural leases ruling may be ‘ripe for an embarrassing appeal’

Ruling which was meant to protect pre-1995 leases has slim chance of surviving an appeal, according to legal experts


The judgement delivered by Judge Lawrence Mintoff in the case of Vincenza Magro v the Schembri family, which raised a glimmer of hope for other farmers facing possible eviction through its ruling in favour of the protection of pre-1995 agricultural leases, may be “ripe for an embarrassing appeal”, legal sources have said.

Mintoff’s ruling on 21 December, in which he decreed that the Agricultural Leases Act creates a balance between the rights of tenants and landlords, contrasts with a long series of judgements handed down by both the local constitutional court and the European Court of Human Rights that have seen a succession of long-standing tenant farmers losing their rights to work fields they’d held for decades.

In his deliberations, Judge Mintoff decreed that although the state must find equilibrium between the general interest of the country’s need for agriculture and the landowner’s right to enjoy their property, the landowner had failed to avail themselves of the available means to ensure adequate compensation for their land.

“The fact that a law protecting tenants of urban or rural property is in the public  interest, does not exonerate the state from also observing the rule of proportionality. This  means that if an excessive burden is imposed on the landowners, then such law, even if in the public interest, must still observe the proportionality principle,” one source observed.

In other words, the rule of proportionality refers towards the court’s need to strike a balance between the restriction imposed on the landlord’s right to enjoy their property and the needs of the country.

“The judgment by Mr Justice Mintoff is evidently intended to protect farmers; and since in Malta there is no doctrine of precedent, the judge was not bound to observe the judgments of the Constitutional Court or the European Court,” the same source stated.

This, they explained, was because judges and magistrates in Malta are not obliged to follow lines of reasoning determined by other judge’s rulings as in ‘common law’ jurisdictions such as the UK.

“This means, however, that the chances of such judgment surviving an appeal procedure, and being confirmed by the Constitutional Court, or for that matter the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), are not great,” the same source added.

Another legal source confirmed the probable fate of Mintoff’s ruling should it be appealed, arguing that the precedent set by higher courts, although non-binding, means the case “is ripe for an embarrassing appeal”.

“Malta doesn’t have the doctrine of precedent so courts aren’t bound by rulings of higher courts on separate facts but naturally, when this happens, it creates a mess,” the source stated.

“Mintoff’s judgement will more than likely be appealed which will end up before the three judges that already found that law unconstitutional – it wastes a year and creates needless doubt,” they added.

When asked whether Mintoff’s ruling may influence any other ongoing cases involving pre-1995 agricultural lease disputes, one of the sources suggested that “the court in such pending cases would probably await the outcome of the appeal proceedings in the judgement delivered in the Vincenza Magro case”.

“In the case of residential premises, the government amended the law so that today, a rent fixed at 2% of the current market value is established. Probably, the same measure or something similar would have to be introduced to agricultural leases if the judgment is overturned and the previous line of jurisprudence confirmed,” the source added.

Mintoff’s judgement came as a sliver of hope for embattled farmers’ associations who have been sounding the alarm since November 2020 following the original constitutional court judgement which had established the precedent of prioritising the owner’s fundamental human right to enjoy property over farmers’ tenancy rights and effectively declared the Agricultural Leases Act to be unconstitutional.

Last week, The Shift spoke to ex-dockyard boss and militant trade unionist Sammy Meilaq and independent MP Marlene Farrugia on the Labour party’s gradual shift away from its previously tightly-held stance in favour of defending farmers who were dependent on cheap, pre-1995 agricultural leases.

Both Meilaq and Farrugia had chastised the government for failing to adequately protect farmers from ongoing evictions, arguing that the government had betrayed the interests of farmers who were carrying out essential labour for the good of the country to instead favour speculative interests seeking land for development.

Featured photo credit – Ian Foks


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