The Maltese Legal system is a synthesis of the various legal cultures which exerted influence on it during the long years of colonial rule. Although British rule was officialised in 1814, the British refrained from imposing common law in Malta. The first proper codification of laws the island ever had, ‘Del Dritto Municipale di Malta’ (Malta, 1784), often affectionately referred to as the ‘Code de Rohan’ , which was promulgated in the dying days of the long rule of the Knights Hospitaller, was substituted by a local version of the ‘Code Napoleon’ in 1852. Other codes were enacted in the same period, most notably the Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure, the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure. A Maltese legal luminary, Sir Adrian Dingli, was instrumental in the promulgation of these Codes, which though extensively amended over the years, still form the backbone of Maltese legislation. Dingli drew extensively from continental codes, such as those of the Italian states and of the Two Sicilies. However, the Code of Criminal Procedure departed somehow from the continental models and the accused were given rights which were already prevalent in the United Kingdom. Trial by jury was also introduced.
Over the long years of British Colonial Rule, British legal influence came increasingly to bear. Fiscal and company legislation follow closely the British model and since Independence in 1964, UK legislation is often mirrored in legislation enacted by the House of Representatives which is run on rules followed by Westminster. The Maltese Independence Constitution of 1964 reflects closely British constitutional principles but it also promulgated a bill of fundamental rights which was very much influenced by the European Convention on Human Rights and the Indian Constitution.
The European Convention on Human Rights was subsequently incorporated in domestic legislation in 1987. Since Malta’s accession to the European Union in 2004, the acquis communitaire and future EU regulations prevail over domestic legislation and E.U. directives have to be incorporated in domestic legislation.
The Courts in Malta are divided into Court of Superior and Inferior jurisdictions. A bench of judges sit on the Superior Courts, both in the first instance and in the appellate court. In the first instance, there is a constitutional chamber to which are referred applications for a remedy under the Constitution or the European Convention on Human Rights as well as references from other tribunals where issues of a possible breach of fundamental human rights arise. The First Hall of the Civil Court hears the of civil law cases, whilst the Family Section of the Civil Court deals with family matters. The Criminal Court presides over trials by jury. The appellate courts are made up of the Constitutional Court, the Court of Appeal, and the Criminal Court of Appeal. The appellate Courts only have a single tier system of appeal.
The Inferior Courts are presided over by magistrates who have multiple competences: as inquiring magistrates in criminal investigations, in the compilation of evidence in criminal trials, as a court of criminal judicature where criminal sanction does not exceed six months jail or with the consent of the accused, ten years jail, and as a civil court where claims may not exceed €15,000.
The Small Claims Tribunal deals with monetary claims up to €5,000 in value. Mandatory arbitration also applies in certain instances and an arbitration centre has been set up.
The Courts in Gozo are presided over by magistrates, even in the Court’s superior jurisdiction. Otherwise, Gozo courts have the same competence as courts in Malta except for constitutional and bankruptcy procedures.