The Civil Court have jurisdiction to decide cases concerning commercial leases irrespective if the property may be in a rural zone. This was held in a judgement delivered by Madame Justice Joanne Vella Cuschieri on 5 June 2020 in Iris Cauchi et -v- Carmel Abela.
The Cauchis filed a sworn application before the First Hall of the Civil Courts, in which they explained that they are the owners of land in Zejtun which is now being used as an animal farm. In 2013 they called on Abela to terminate the lease and therefore, they asked the court to order the defendant to vacate the premises since he is without a title.
The defendant reacted by filing a statement of defence, the first two pleas concerned the lack of competence the Civil Courts have on the plaintiffs’ claims.
The Court pointed out that the plaintiffs held that the land was first rented out as an agricultural property and this was later changed to the breeding of animals. The plaintiffs argued that the lease was no longer regulated by the Agricultural Leases (Reletting) Act but the new amendments of the Civil Code under Article 1525 and the Reletting of Urban Property (Regulation) Ordinance, which now falls under the Civil Court. The defendant argued on the other hand, that the lease is still an agricultural lease and therefore the competent tribunal should be the Rural Leases Control Board.
The Court went through the evidence produced before it. Jennifer Cauchi, on of the plaintiffs told the Court that she was always informed that Carmel Abela always bread animals in their property, although she visited the property around 5 times in her lifetime. The last time Abela paid was in 2004. The rent was in fact paid in court. The plaintiffs had sent a number of legal letters asking the Defendant to vacate the property. The Court was shown a number of photos of the property and development permits.
There was other evidence that the property was licenced for animals since 1988. The Abela family had rented the property for generations. The Abela family also insisted that the owners knew that the property was used to breed animals and never complained.
The Court held that Agricultural Leases (Reletting) Act defines “agricultural land” as “any land which is mainly let for the growing of crops, flowers, fruit-trees or vines and for cognate agricultural purposes, including the erection of glass houses, cloches or cold frames, but does not include grazing ground.”
There seems to be an agreement that the property was used for the breeding of cows.
Article 1525 of the Civil Code reads:
“(1) A contract of letting and hiring, whether of things or of work and labour, may be made either verbally or in writing, provided that a contract of letting and hiring of urban property and of a residence and of a commercial tenement entered into after the 1st January, 2010 shall be in writing.”
The Reletting of Urban Property (Regulation) Ordinance, sets up the Rent Regulation Board, which decides on all legal issues on urban leases, which includes residential and commercial leases including the possession of urban property when the lease has been terminated. Other leases fall under the competence of the civil courts and in the case of rural these issues are decided by the Rural Leases Control Board. On the other hand, disputes on the validity of a lease agreement should be decided by the civil courts.
The Rent Board is to decide all claims relating to the maintenance of the property or its repair and damages, amounts due on utilities and much more. This Board has the power to order authorities to testify before it. But this Board is excluded from hearing rural cases.
Then the Court compared the Maltese and English versions on the definitions of commercial tenement and found that in both versions there is an emphasis that the property should be an urban property. If in this case the property qualifies as a commercial tenement as defined in Article 1525 of the Civil Code, then this court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case, once the plaintiff is asking to take possession back once the lease was terminated. Therefore, the issue hinges on whether the property qualifies as a commercial property in terms of Article 1525. The land is used for the raising of cows and although there are a few rooms on the land the main use was for the animals.
The Court pointed out that urban means that the land is in a development area and therefore, predominantly built up. The land lies amongst fields and is not a urban area. However, the defendant argued that Article 1525 was amended after the action was filed in court. The transitory article held that the leases in force prior to I June 1995 and still in force on 1 January 2010, then the law applicable prior to 1 June 1995 will be applicable. The Rent Board regulated by the Reletting of Urban Property (Regulation) Ordinance will have exclusive jurisdiction on all issues concern rent of urban property, including commercial leases. Those cases pending on 1 January 2010 will be heard before the civil court. However, this particular case was filed in 2014.
This lease was contracted before 1995 and was still valid on 1 January 2010. Therefore, the civil court had jurisdiction to hear and decide the case.
The court then moved to reject the plea of lack of competence and ordered that the case continue.
Av. Malcolm Mifsud
Mifsud & Mifsud Advocates
This article is available on Malta Today.
For more information you can contact one of our Team Members at Mifsud & Mifsud Advocates.