A court has declared that although landowners have a right to enjoy property held under protected leases, the State has a “very wide discretion” to maintain the agricultural sector and prevent its collapse.
The judgement, which concerned a parcel of land in the limits of Żurrieq and Qrendi, could prove to be a boon to government efforts to introduce new laws to protect farmers tilling leased land.
In the case in question, the land in an area known as ‘il-Bur ta’ Ħallew’ had been leased to a farming family long before the applicant's uncle gave her the land in 1982.
The annual rent currently payable on the land in question, measuring some 2,910 metres square, is €12.
However, following a disagreement about an increase in rent, the last payment was deposited in the court registry, while the owner instituted proceedings before the First Hall, Civil Court in its constitutional jurisdiction.
The applicant claimed that the current situation breached her fundamental property rights since the current legal scenario in terms of the Agricultural Leases (Reletting) Act made it practically impossible for the owner to claim back possession of the land.
The court was requested to declare the breach of rights and to provide adequate remedies, as well as compensation.
But when delivering judgment, Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff ruled in favour of the lessee, observing that the State is to ensure that the local agricultural sector is safeguarded and that local produce is sufficient.
That duty was more onerous when the law was first introduced in 1967.
Since then the country’s economic and financial situation has changed and a free market economy allowing fresh imported products ensures that the local demand is met.
However, the State must make sure that our market does not rely wholly on importation since this may be negatively impacted through force majeure such as happened over the past couple of years when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“The State has a very wide discretion to ensure that the agricultural sector does not collapse,” said Mintoff, while acknowledging that such discretion was reined in by the fundamental rights of citizens to enjoyment of their property.
This was where an element of proportionality came into play, said the court, citing European Court of Human Rights case law.
The legislator was to make sure that farmers were not easily deprived of their lands when faced with rent increase demands that they could never hope to match.
In this case, the applicant had first asked for rent to be increased to €2,000, but that was way too much for the current farmer, who had taken possession of the land from her elderly relatives and had since registered with Jobsplus as a self-employed part-time farmer.
The applicant’s son then sought to negotiate a rent increase to €600, but that too was deemed too expensive for the farmer who was growing organic products on the parcel of land, which has no natural water source.
The farmer herself testified that the current rent was “very cheap” and said she was willing to reach an agreement over a fairer rent.
Judge dismisses expert valuations
However, the court refused to accept the valuations put forward by a technical expert, who reported that he had compared the land to others advertised by estate agents in the vicinity.
Those valuations were not “realistic” in terms of agricultural use, said the judge, adding that such prices could be acceptable if the land were to be transferred for recreational or other purposes.
The applicant had testified about another smaller parcel of land she had sold in the area for over €116,000, but she did not say if that was sold for agricultural use.
When all was considered the court concluded that the landowner had never sought to increase the rent nor claim back possession before the Rural Leases Control Board and so she could not argue that she lacked an effective remedy.
The current law was designed to safeguard the agricultural sector and provided a balance between owners and lessee’ rights, said the court, rejecting the landowner’s claims.
Legal tussles concerning agricultural leases have become more frequent since a constitutional court ruled last year that laws restricting a landowner's ability to evict tenants from agricultural land breached his rights.
Since then, farmers working leased land say they are facing growing demands to pay massively increased rents or get off the land. The government has said it is looking to revise legislation to better protect the sector.
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