Nadur residents facing litigation threats if they do not pay a medieval foundation, that is claiming ownership of the land on which their homes are built, can take solace in the outcome of previous court battles as the foundation has repeatedly failed to prove its claims.
A joint investigation by Lovin Malta and The Shift shows that in 1956 the same foundation, or benefice, had attempted to evict the landholders in Nadur at the time on the basis that the temporary emphyteusis granted to them in 1737 had expired.
In a sentence delivered in 1972, the court had held that it may be “possible” that the land claimed by the benefice corresponds to that leased in 1737, “but this possibility is not convincing to the point that would lead” it to rule in favour of the benefice.
The sentence was appealed, but the court accepted the residents’ pleadings in preliminary objections and threw out the appeal on grounds of “incompetence” to hear the cause. This made the 1972 sentence against the foundation stand.
Legal sources say this makes the case res judicata (already settled), making it unlikely that a court would accept to hear another cause for eviction. The foundation would probably have to make a different request other than eviction.
In any request, the basic weakness remains: the foundation has always struggled to prove the accuracy of the land measures it has claimed in litigation.
In a different case decided in 2003, the foundation also failed to evict quarry operators in Qala for similar reasons. Various court-appointed experts reported wide discrepancies on measurements or dimensions of land. In that case, Magistrate Paul Coppini ruled that it was not sufficient for the foundation to prove that the land did not belong to the quarry operator; it had to prove that it belonged to it. The foundation lost the case.
In yet another ongoing court case, the provenance of the foundation and the people who control it or administer it is also currently being questioned.
The possibility of court action over the ownership of land the size of four football pitches has recently intensified after lawyer Carmelo Galea began to send letters to select residents. Galea had registered the land in Nadur under the name of the foundation, which is officially called the Beneficcju ta Sant Antonio delli Navarra, at the Land Registry a year ago.
According to sources, residents are being asked to pay between €10,000 and €70,000 to settle the dispute on their properties, and have their properties registered under their name at the Land Registry.
A few months ago, Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri tabled in parliament a copy of the 1972 sentence and appealed for the registration to be revoked so residents would not end up having to engage in legal battles.
This is part of an investigative series being published jointly by The Shift and Lovin Malta about an ongoing land dispute in Gozo. The investigative team had strategic and research input by Caroline Muscat and Chris Peregin. More updates to follow.