Court of Appeal Returns Property to Owners of Requisitioned Premises

1 September 2020

The Court of Appeal has recently (on the 9th July 2020) overturned a judgement given by the First Hall of the Civil Court in 2014 in the case Gloria Beacom and Henriette Vella Bardon vs Alfred Camenzuli et. 

This decision marks a radical departure from the courts’ line of thought in matters involving the rights of occupiers versus those of the owners of properties subject to a requisition order.

The requisition order was introduced in 1952 and is a potentially vicious  tool that allowed governments to grant living accommodation to individuals without regard to the wishes of the owners of the property that those individuals get to live in. There is plenty of case law that demonstrates how this political power has been misused over the years with landlords being targeted for their political leanings and deprived of their properties and, concomitantly, occupiers being the beneficiaries of political favour and granted the right to use or  live in apartments or houses even when it was evident that the individuals concerned was evidently ineligible.

The case revolves around a large apartment in Valletta at the top of Old Bakery Street owned by  Maruzza Calleja Urry. This was a lovely flat with balconies and plenty of light that fell vacant a few weeks before the 1987 general elections. The defendant Alfred Camenzuli asked the Housing Department to grant him the right to live in the apartment which quickly acceded to his request and issued a requisition order in his favour. The procedure that the law lays out with respect to the issue of these orders was not followed properly and everything was done in great haste. Despite that, by election day the proper formalities required to give Camenzuli possession of the apartment were not done.He should have been accompanied there by Housing Department officials and given the key. Instead, he knocked the door down in the final hours of the Labour government, on the day of the 1987 general elections which produced a change in government.

Calleja Urry sued Camenzuli demanding his eviction but the requisition order that had been issued in his name was considered grounds to refuse the eviction (Calleja Urry vs Camenzuli, decided 30/10/92).

Instead, he knocked the door down in the final hours of the Labour government, on the day of the 1987 general elections which produced a change in government.

The next important development occurred in  2011, when a derequisition order was issued over the same apartment. The plaintiffs, Calleja Urry’s heirs,  requested Camenzuli to leave the apartment by means of a judicial letter but he flatly refused asserting that even though they owned the flat they had no right at all to request his eviction from the said property.

In court, Camenzuli pleaded that the case was time-barred since he and his family had been living in the tenement since 1987. Camenzuli also pleaded that he had a valid title at law over the tenement, so much so that he had deposited the rent in Court annually. The respondent also filed a counterclaim asking the Court to acknowledge their title at law. 

The Court found in Camenzuli’s favour. In its considerations, it quoted cases in which it was made clear that a requisition order makes the Housing Secretary the legal possessor of the tenement (Giovanna Casha vs Maria Dolores Xuereb).  The Court also held that a requisition order dispossessed the owner of the tenement (Dr. Francesco Masini noe vs  Wilfred Podesta’ noe) and that a reversal of that order did not give the place back to the owners.  The Court expressed sympathy with the plaintiffs but said that it could not offer a remedy to the plaintiffs if its decision was to be consistent with past judgements.

The Court of Appeal

The plaintiffs, aggrieved by the First Court’s decision, appealed to the Court of Appeal. They argued that the First Court was incorrect in concluding that third-party occupiers had a valid lease title under Chapter 69 if they are allocated a tenement by the Housing Authority and that they could rely on the protection afforded by the said Ordinance even after a De-Requisition Order is issued.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the appellant plaintiffs and held that the relationship between the Housing Authority and the owner of the requisitioned tenement is not one of letting, but rather of a sui generis nature as regulated by the Housing Act. The First Court had concluded that whilst a tenement is under a Requisition Order, a lease agreement exists between the Housing Authority and the occupier, which agreement is then converted into a lease agreement between the owners and the existing occupiers following a derequisition Order. 

The Court of Appeal however noted that Article 8(1) of Chapter 125 states that a judicial letter should be sent to the dispossessed owner ordering them to recognise the person who is given the tenement as a tenant. In this particular case, the Court of Appeal noted that no proof was presented that the owners ever recognised, or were ordered to recognise, Camenzuli as a tenant at any given point.

Since the above was not done, no contract of letting was created between the owner and the occupant, as this is not created ipso facto. The Court of Appeal thus reversed the decision of the first court and ordered Camenzuli’s eviction within two months from said judgment.

Ma nġiebet ebda prova la li s-sidien għarfu minjeddhom lill-konvenuti bħala kerrejja u lanqas illi ntbagħtet lis-sidien l-ittra ġudizzjarja li trid il- liġi biex jiġu mġiegħla jagħarfuhom, u għalhekk ma nħoloq ebda kiri taħt din id-disposizzjoni. Ladarba l-liġi trid din il-proċedura biex jinħoloq kiri bejn is-sid u l-okkupant, hija inevitabbli l-konklużjoni illi dak il-kiri ma jinħoloqx ipso facto kif donnha timplika s-sentenza appellata.”

This decision is important because the courts have revealed what owners of houses, flats and other tenements that are or can become  subject to requisition orders need to do:  In  order to avoid having a property become the merit of a lease contract, which inherently implies the consent of both parties, an owner must never sign anything that suggests recognition of the persons benefiting of the requisition order.