Malta – The Legal Framework

The Maltese legal system presents quite a sophisticated and comprehensive framework which in part reflects the various foreign influences that have designed the Island’s history. Over the years, Malta has been ruled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Knights of the Order of St. John and for a few years by the French under Napoleon. More recently, between 1802 and 1964, Malta formed part of the British Empire.

Malta has a written Constitution based on the British Westminster model that has been adopted in many other states forming part of the British Commonwealth. It incorporates the basic constitutional framework adopted by the United Kingdom, but with a single legislature.

General elections, based on proportional representation, are held at least once every five years. Responsibility for government lies in a Cabinet of Ministers led by the Prime Minister. The head of state is the President who is elected by Parliament.

Administrative law and practice follow closely British laws and practice. Indeed, the government civil service is broadly organised on the United Kingdom model. In 1964, Malta became an independent nation and a full member of the United Nations. In 1974, the island effected constitutional changes and became a republic. Maltese and English enjoy the status of official languages. This means that all laws and regulations are drafted and published in both languages.

While most of public law is inspired by the United Kingdom model, the country’s private law is largely continental (European). Malta is basically a civil law jurisdiction, and much of its law has been codified. Five codes of law still provide the bulk of Malta’s civil and criminal rules and procedures, closely following the model originally introduced by the Napoleonic Code. This system, which traces its origins to Roman law, still prevails in large parts of Western Europe including France, Italy, Belgium and Germany. It is interesting to note that the codified system on the continental (European) model was introduced during the second half of the 19th century by the British administration which had been governing the island as a crown colony since the overthrow of the French occupying forces.

Since Malta follows what is usually referred to as the continental (European) model of private law, English common law as a rule does not apply. Nonetheless, its influence is greatly felt in much of local commercial practice and regulation, especially in company law and in insurance and banking law which closely follow English practice. Most recent legislation, including the various financial services laws adopted in 1994 owe a debt to English statutes. The Investment Services Act had adopted concepts from the Financial Services Act of the United Kingdom of 1986, while the shipping, insurance, money laundering and insider dealing laws (to mention just a few instances) have been largely influenced by European Union legislation. Substantial parts of the Companies Act represent a simplified version of the English Companies Act of 1985, including most of the provisions dealing with the limited liability company, accounting and insolvency.

In 1988, Malta also introduced within its legal system the English common law concept of trust.

It may be rightfully claimed that the Maltese legal system has been able to absorb a number of different legal and cultural influences from the two European countries which have shaped a large part of its history, and whose cultural influence remains very high to this day: Italy its closest neighbour to the north, and the United Kingdom.

The Maltese legal profession is a very well established and independent profession. The courts are impartial and independent. All the normal minimum safeguards for fair judicial proceedings and due process are in place through the Constitution and through Malta’s adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights as part of its domestic law in 1987. This was not an entirely new development as the Constitution already provided for a comprehensive bill of rights

The long relationship between the Islanders and the various nationalities that occupied Malta over the centuries has created a marriage of styles and traditions, giving the Islands a fascinating eclectic culture.

The official languages are Maltese and English. Maltese is a language of Semitic origin written in the Latin script. Over the centuries, it has incorporated many words derived from English, Italian and French. Italian is also widely spoken.