From next month, you can approach the Small Claims Court (SCC) for civil claims worth up to R20 000.
The welcome announcement was made by Justice and Constitutional Development Deputy Minister John Jeffery last week. New guidelines for commissioners and clerks will also be effective on April 1 to help clarify the impact of consumer protection legislation and the National Credit Act on the work of these courts.
The claims ceiling for the court was raised from R15 000. The last time the ceiling was reviewed was in 2014.
The move was viewed as a victory for consumers and access to justice. On Thursday, the Stellenbosch Law Clinic announced on its Facebook page that the monetary jurisdiction of the SCC will increase to R20 000, effective from April 1.
The clinic, 2019’s Social Justice Law Firm of the Year, has taken on some high-profile cases in recent years: it made a written submission to the Treasury to include feminine hygiene products on the list of zero-rated tax items (and won); challenged the in duplum rule (a common-law rule that effectively means a debt may not accrue in excess of double the original amount), unlawful costs added onto the accounts of distressed debtors, emolument attachment orders, micro-lenders and farm evictions.
In the SCC ceiling matter, the clinic had raised the issue with the Justice Ministry, which determined the value of claims under section 15 of the Small Claims Court Act. It argued that the court’s jurisdiction needed to be increased annually in line with the consumer price index, because there was a marked increase in the number of decisions being taken on review, and that failure to do so would force consumers to approach magistrate’s courts for legal relief for relatively small monetary amounts - while incurring steep legal fees and engaging in time-consuming adversarial procedures.
In August last year, the clinic contended: “Given that small claims relate to a range of commodities, such as goods and services, the clinic submits that it would be best to rely on a price index that covers a basket of goods and services.
“In South Africa, the most popular and widely used index measuring the increase in prices of a basket of goods is the consumer price index (CPI) calculated by Statistics SA.”
The SCC was established in 1984 to allow the public an inexpensive, relatively quick way to achieve justice between two civil parties - not the state, Stellenbosch Law Clinic senior attorney and lecturer Stephan van der Merwe explained.
“The SCC relieves a lot of pressure from magistrate’s courts,” he said.
Van der Merwe added that the clinic motivated for the increase on two accounts: to keep up with the times and inflation, and to improve access to justice and the court.
“The SCC is relatively quick and inexpensive. A defendant doesn’t need to worry about defending against a person with deep pockets and a smooth-talking lawyer. They have an opportunity to say what they need to - the process is inquisitorial in nature.”
Van der Merwe suggested that even with the R20 000 limit, if your claim was slightly higher, it might be worthwhile to consider lowering your expectations.
“If your claim is R22 000, what the act allows for is that you can abandon that R2 000. Think really hard to see if it’s worth appointing an attorney and going to court, considering the legal costs.
“Unless it’s a very strong, clear-cut case, it might be worth abandoning a portion of the claim amount. But don’t abandon that full amount in the letter of demand stage - ask for the full amount. The respondent then has 14 days to make payment. If they do pay, you’re fine.
“If they don’t, issue the summons and abandon that excess amount so you can get something. You’re almost always better off abandoning that extra amount.”
He advised that the claimant should keep records of all documents and submit the letter of demand through registered mail.
When the summons is served it needs to go through the sheriff - keep that report too.
Remain clear, honest and logical in the application to avoid getting tripped up in a lie at the commissioner.