Court favours the landlord in electricity payment dispute

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

From a legislative perspective South African law favours the tenant, but a recent ruling has highlighted the need for landlord's rights to be considered.

South African tenants generally have all the cards decked firmly in their favour. Firstly, you cannot simply elect to evict an individual for the non-payment of rent. Secondly, landlords may not cut the power supply to a home, even though he is ultimately responsible for the bill and his erring tenant has run up debt of thousands or Rand.

Unfortunately, there are hundreds of horror stories doing the rounds regarding landlords who have been left seriously out of pocket by those who know how to use the law to their full advantage. While the need to protect the rights of a tenant are perfectly understandable, it does seem that those who actually own the property have been hung out to dry. Of course not every tenant intends to scam their landlord out of large amounts of money, however, there seems to be little or no repercussions for those who take their landlords for what is often a very expensive ride - except it seems, for the tenant of a commercial property in the Cape.

A recent High Court ruling granted the owner of a building the right to cut off a tenant's electricity. The tenant who ran a nightclub in the basement of the building had not paid for electricity since October last year and owed the landlord some R300 000. Understandably the landlord couldn't disconnect the power to the entire building as the other tenants, who had been paying their bills, would be affected. The landlord approached the court in order to have the power disconnected to the business premises of the non-paying tenant, something that was favourably noted by the judge, who ruled in the landlord's favour.

Although it's important to note that this case involved the tenant of a commercial property, it does highlight the fact that the courts don't always take the side of the tenant and may well give hope to those who have to deal with troublesome individuals who are determined not to pay their way.

The fact that the landlord in this instance didn't try and take the law into his own hands by disconnecting the electricity himself was noted by the judge who also decried the situation that the "landlord (was) subsidising the tenant's business, which cannot be allowed to continue".

The courts jealously guard their power and the situation may have turned out very differently had the landlord decided to take matters into his own hands by disconnecting the power without having the correct authority to do so. Landlords who attempt to forcefully evict tenants without following the correct legal processes could find themselves in front of a judge, explaining their actions. Remember that if a tenant takes his landlord to court, it could take months if not years before the situation is resolved and the costs involved in a protracted legal battle are enormous.

Essentially, those who lease out property in this country need to do so by the book. They should make sure that there is a proper lease in place and should follow the letter of the law when problems occur instead of adopting a high-handed approach that could come back to bite.

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