A group of tenants operating businesses along Valletta’s Santa Lucia Street, have raised an issue of ownership that had been long-contested by the Archdiocese of Malta and the government, in a bid to stall eviction proceedings.

The matter came to the fore on Friday when a number of jewellers and other operators of retail outlets, situated along the capital’s famed ‘gold street’ and nearby areas within the footprint of St John’s co-cathedral, went to court in a bid to contest the Land Authority’s eviction notices.

In the weeks before Christmas, these business owners received notices from the authority informing them that their leases were being terminated for public purposes, namely so that the foundation administering the co-cathedral could expand its operations. 

The owners were informed that the foundation needed to expand its offices and improve museum security.

Those notices prompted the shop operators to seek legal action by filing appeals before the Administrative Review Tribunal contesting the eviction.  

A first hearing of the various cases was set for Friday (today) before the tribunal chaired by Magistrate Charmaine Galea.

That was when lawyers for the applicants raised a crucial issue concerning ownership.

Lawyer Edward DeBono, who is assisting the tenants, together with Antoine Cremona and Chiara Frendo, called for a 'stay of the proceedings' until the ownership of the co-cathedral itself and the adjacent shops was determined by a court, this in view of the fact that such ownership is contested by the Archdiocese of Malta and the government. 

Reference was made to a deed registered in the records of Notary Franco Pellegrini.

Cremona explained that this issue, which has existed and stood unresolved since the departure of the Knights of the Order of St John and subsequent French rule in Malta, was important to determine who actually had the power to file for eviction. 

However, Lands Authority lawyer Ramona Attard countered that the eviction order issued by the authority was lawful and in line with existing contracts, thus rebutting the applicants’ call for a stay of the proceedings. 

The crux of the matter before the tribunal was whether the authority had power to order the eviction, argued the lawyer.

In view of the issue raised by the appellants’ lawyers, the tribunal ordered the Lands Authority, as a respondent in the proceedings, to produce evidence with regard to the legal title over the contested properties.

For this reason, a representative of the Lands Authority is to testify at the next sitting, scheduled to take place in February.  

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