The Malta Maritime Forum last year submitted proposals aimed at consolidating Malta’s position in the maritime sector to the prime minister and opposition leader. One proposal was the allocation through legislation of maritime litigation to a specialised court.

The raison d’être for this proposition is the need for this nation to insist in its vocation of excellence in the maritime sector where, limitedly from the aspect of tonnage of registered vessels, ranks first in the EU and fifth worldwide. This result was pursued with consistent determination over the years and was achieved through the patient resolve of people of outstanding quality and competence coming both from the public and private sectors.

This country cannot, however, rely solely on past results and experience to build its future as far as the maritime sector is concerned. That would be a way forward destined to fail over time, taking into account an ever increasingly tough competitive international market conditions. 

By having maritime litigation heard and decided swiftly by a specialised court renders the jurisdiction of this country more attractive with substantial service multiplier effects. The call for a specialised maritime court compliments the country’s aspirations to reaffirm its position of distinction in the maritime sector.

The forum was encouraged by the acceptance of this proposal from both sides represented in parliament. 

On the part of the government, there was a public declaration by the former minister for justice to the effect that the cabinet had approved the extension of the jurisdiction and/or competence of the Civil Court (Commercial Section) to maritime cases, a positive move which the forum endorsed in public without reserve. 

The call for a specialised court to hear and decide on maritime litigation was raised only recently by opposition MP Ivan Castillo. The present minister for justice, Jonathan Attard, reaffirmed the government’s intention to address the matter.

Therefore, the issue at present is when the specialised court can be legislatively constituted.

The forum is of the view that the matter should be classified as a top priority in this early part of the present legislature.

The present administrative set-up designed by the present Chief Justice, whereby maritime litigation is assigned to a judge presiding over the First Hall of the Civil Court, is good but not enough, taking into account that, finally, it is the Registrar of Courts who allocates cases to judges in the day-to-day administration of cases.

The matter should be classified as a top priority in this early part of the present legislature

In its belief that time is mature enough for proper legislative intervention, the forum did not limit itself just to the submission of proposals but has taken a clear proactive approach.

In fact, together with its member the Malta Maritime Law Association, that embraces the crème de la crème of Maltese maritime law legal practitioners, the forum has gone one step forward in its proposal − not only by stating that the Civil Court (Commercial Section) should have exclusive jurisdiction to hear and decide on maritime litigation but has indicated the matters that should be the exclusive competence of that court, namely:

• actions relating to collisions at sea;

• actions arising out of the carriage of goods by sea;

• actions in rem [article 742B of chapter 12 of the Laws of Malta);

• actions in personam whether arising out of tort or contract involving the subject matters listed in article 742B of chapter 12 of the Laws of Malta;

• precautionary and executive warrants relating to the arrest of ships;

• judicial sales of ships and court-approved private sales;

• the precautionary and executive warrant of ejectment or expulsion from seagoing vessels, and any action relating to the eviction of an operator, lessee or other occupants, including any members of their staff from seagoing vessels.

• civil or commercial disputes brought by or against (i) any Maltese shipping organisation and (ii) against any international owner.

• actions relating to Part II [of Maritime Trade and Navigation] of the Commercial Code (Chapter 13 of the Laws of Malta) ;  Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (chapter 140 of the Laws of Malta); Merchant Shipping Act (chapter 234 of the Laws of Malta); Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone Act (chapter 226 of the Laws of Malta); Carriage of Goods by Sea (Regulation) Act (chapter 283 of the Laws of Malta); Ports and Shipping Act (chapter 352 of the Laws of Malta); Law of the Sea (Ratification) Act (chapter 363 of the Laws of Malta); Oil Pollution (Liability and Compensation) Act (chapter 412 of the Laws of Malta); International Carriage of Goods By Road Act (chapter 456 of the Laws of Malta) and the Maritime Pilotage Regulations.

The forum has done its part and urges the government to move forward at the earliest opportunity and present a Bill before parliament.

Judge Emeritus Joseph Zammit McKeon is the chairperson of the Malta Maritime Forum.

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