Lockdown! Nuisance Neighbours and How to Handle Them

Lockdown! Nuisance Neighbours and How to Handle Them

“You can be a good neighbour only if you have good neighbours” (Howard E. Koch)

It looks as if we will still be under “restricted movement” orders for a while – even when we finally get down to Alert Level 2 and who knows when that will be. 

Tensions between neighbours are no doubt at an all-time high, and whether you are working from home or just trying to stay sane until our “new normal” starts kicking in, you are no doubt noticing more than ever all those little irritants from next door that would normally fly below your radar or at least be tolerable. 

And of course remember it’s a vice-versa situation – your neighbour is in exactly the same position. That’s a recipe for dispute, and going to war with a neighbour is a classic lose-lose option, in court or out of it. Any short-term victory you may think you can achieve will pale against the ongoing trench warfare that will inevitably result. 

First prize: A negotiated win-win

Negotiation will always be your best path to a win-win outcome, and whether you open up dialogue with a friendly chat over WhatsApp or a socially-distanced masks-on discussion over your boundary wall, here is one bit of advice that will substantially increase your chances of a happy outcome for everyone: Understand your legal rights before you start negotiating! 

Should your negotiations come to naught, consider as your next step mediation, arbitration or official intervention (more on possible municipal or police intervention options below). Remember that if you live in a “community scheme” such as a sectional title development or a Homeowners’ Association community, the CSOS (Community Schemes Ombud Service) provides a dispute resolution service to assist with a wide range of community disputes.

Then – and this should normally be your last option only to be resorted to when all other avenues have failed – you have the legal route, normally in the form of an interdict application and/or damages claim. 

How can our law help you? It’s a balancing act…

The principles laid down by our courts in dealing with neighbour disputes over many years are firmly rooted in common sense. You are entitled to the use and enjoyment of your property – so long as you act lawfully – without unreasonable interference. “An interference” our courts have held, “will be unreasonable when it ceases to be a ‘to-be-expected-in-the-circumstances’ interference and is of a type which does not have to be tolerated under the principle of ‘give and take, live and let live’.”  

As the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) put it in 2016: “Nuisance involves the unreasonable use of property by one neighbour to the detriment of another.” It’s a balancing act between competing rights – yours and those of the other property owners around you. 

Peacocks, a cherry tree, and the court’s wide discretion

It is also difficult to set out too much in the way of hard and fast rules here, for as our courts have put it “modern conditions require the exercise of a wide discretion in the adjustment of neighbour relationships”. 

Thus the High Court, in a 2013 case involving nuisance peacocks, a “much loved” cherry tree on the boundary of two properties and in danger of being chopped down, and a partially-demolished boundary wall, both quoted and applied that principle with an order encapsulating a resolution of the neighbourly disputes in a detailed and pragmatic manner. The peacocks for example had made a major nuisance of themselves by being noisy, messy and destructive trespassers (they had damaged expensive vehicles by pecking at them when they saw themselves reflected in the rear-view mirrors and highly polished metal surfaces). The court order included both authority for them to be removed by either the municipality or by the SPCA (there being no municipal permit to keep them as required by the municipality’s bye-laws), and an admonition to find them “good and lawful homes”. The cherry tree on the other hand is now protected by an interdict against its removal, with detailed instructions in the court order as to the reconstruction of the boundary wall next to it.

Bear in mind therefore that what is said below is of necessity a simplified and brief summary only – every case will be different, our courts will take into account a whole range of factors in deciding a dispute, and in many instances technical questions of “wrongfulness”, “fault”, “moving to the nuisance” and so on may apply. If your dispute gravitates towards legal action, specific advice is essential!

What is a “nuisance”?

The range of potential disputes falling into the “neighbour law” and “nuisance” categories is wide. Some examples (from the SCA again – emphasis supplied) – “repulsive odours, smoke and gases drifting over the plaintiff’s property from the defendant’s land, water seeping onto the plaintiffs property, leaves from the defendant’s trees falling onto the plaintiff’s premises, slate being washed down-river onto a plaintiff’s land, causing a disturbing noise, causing a common wall to become unstable by piling soil up against it, overhanging branches and foliage, an electrified fence on top of a communal garden wall, blue wildebeest transmitting disease to cattle on neighbouring ground, and occupants of structures on neighbouring land allegedly causing a nuisance.” 

Two common areas of dispute – noise and trees

Let’s have a closer look at how those general principles have been applied to two of the more common areas of dispute –

  1. Noise: If barking dogs, power tools, loud music or the like are making your life a misery – keeping you awake at night perhaps, or (a common concern in this time of remote working) unable to concentrate on that business project or to participate in your daily Zoom “office” meeting – sooner or later you will need to take action.

    Particularly relevant here are the various national statutes and local bye-laws dealing with noise pollution. Contact your local municipality or the police for help if you need to. If you live in a complex, Body Corporate or Home Owners Association rules and regulations will probably come into play as well. SAPS should respond to serious violations of our anti-noise laws, and just a warning visit from a blue uniform might solve your problem once and for all. 

    If you end up in a legal fight, our courts will take into account factors such as “the type of noise, the degree of its persistence, the locality involved and the times when the noise is heard”. As we said above, every case will be different.  
  2. Trees: If your neighbour’s trees are damaging your property (common complaints relate to boundary walls, underground pipes, building foundations, driveways and the like), or are causing a nuisance in the form of falling leaves or branches, or are blocking your views/depriving you of light, you are once again left with no hard and fast rules. A court will look at what is “objectively reasonable” in all the circumstances. As a general rule, don’t count on much sympathy from a court if damage is minor and easily repaired, if the nuisance caused is controllable by you with regular maintenance (clearing leaves from gutters and so on) or if your only complaint is loss of your views. That last aspect is a whole separate debate with many twists and turns, but all based on the concept that you will have no automatic right to a view.   

    Where you are dealing with an “overhanging branches” issue, old common law principles will usually apply unless factors such as local bye-laws, heritage protection of older trees etc come into play. You will generally have a right to cut overhanging branches back to your property line if the neighbour refuses to do so and to keep or dispose of the branches if your neighbour declines to take them. 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Unemployed, Can’t Pay Bond and Credit Instalments? “Credit Life Insurance” May Save You

Unemployed, Can’t Pay Bond and Credit Instalments? “Credit Life Insurance” May Save You

If you are one of the many employees retrenched or put on short pay or unpaid leave as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown, you will be wondering how to cover the monthly instalments on your mortgage bond and other credit agreements. You have no doubt heard of the “payment holidays” banks are offering, but remember that although these are a lot better than losing your house, car etc, they are no free lunch. Interest and fees will still be building up.

Credit life insurance is not just death cover

That’s why you need to check right now whether or not any of your credit agreements are covered by “credit life insurance”. Many people don’t even realise they have this cover in place, and those that do may look at the “life” part of the name and think “well that’s no good to me or my family, I’m unemployed not dead”. The good news there is that most policies cover a host of other events leaving you unable to pay instalments – see below for more.

Do you have cover?

You may well have this cover in place without even realising it because it is commonly required when you take out any form of credit – think mortgage bonds, vehicle finance, credit cards, retail credit (store cards etc) and so on. 

If you aren’t sure, check your latest bond or credit statement for any sign of an insurance premium deduction (it may be called “balance protection” or the like). Then contact the bank (or whichever credit grantor you are with) and ask them to check. You may not have it for example if at the time you ceded another life policy to the credit grantor.

What are you covered for?

Check what the terms of your particular policy are, but the minimum cover required by National Credit Act Regulations (which only affect credit agreements entered into on or after 9 August 2017) is –

  • Death or permanent disability: The outstanding balance of your total obligations under the credit agreement is covered.
  • Unemployment or inability to earn an income: You are covered until you find employment or are able to earn an income, with a maximum of 12 months’ instalments. 
  • On temporary disability: You are covered until you are no longer disabled, with a maximum of 12 months’ instalments.

Exclusions – the Regulations allow a long list of exclusions to be incorporated in your policy so check which apply to you. Most of them are common sense – for example lawful dismissal, retirement or resignation from employment – but if you are told that a particular exclusion applies to you and you don’t agree ask your professional advisor for advice before conceding anything. Employers may be able to assist in this regard when structuring crisis outcomes with staff, but remember to do so only after taking your own legal advice! 

Self-employed people and pensioners should check what cover they have under their particular policy, and what terms apply to them.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Leases, Contracts and COVID-19: What is Force Majeure?

Leases, Contracts and COVID-19: What is Force Majeure?

The COVID-19 crisis has changed everything. Our personal lives have been upended and our businesses hit hard. 

And with many businesses operating out of leased premises, a great many landlords and tenants are asking themselves what happens if the crisis leaves a tenant unable to pay the agreed rental. 

What follows is of necessity a general guide only – professional advice specific to your case is essential here.

Tenants – your risk

As always “With Great Change comes Great Opportunity”, but if you aren’t able to very quickly find and exploit a viable new opportunity you may well struggle to pay your rental. 

Don’t just stop paying rental! Failing to pay rental on time means breaching your lease, and if you do that you face cancellation, legal action for recovery of outstanding rental, damages claims for breach (substantial if your lease has a long time to run and your landlord struggles to re-let) and calling up of your personal suretyships (exposing you to loss of all your personal assets, house etc). 

Bottom line – take professional advice before you just stop paying!

Landlords – your balancing act

As a landlord you have a very delicate balancing act – on the one hand you won’t want to lose even half-reasonable tenants at a time when finding new ones is going to be problematic. One wonders for example how many small businesses will now either fail entirely or be forced to cut costs. And how many others, having had an enforced period of “working from home”, will now be reconsidering the whole concept of leasing separate office space at all. 

On the other hand of course you need to cover your ongoing costs, which probably means enforcing payment of rent. That in turn means understanding your legal position – for example does your tenant now have an excuse to cancel the lease without penalty? If so, you lose a tenant without recompense. But if your tenant is still bound by the lease, you are free (if you wish – long-term support of your tenant may still be your best option) to demand full payment, then to reduce your losses by cancelling, evicting, executing against the tenant’s assets and calling up personal suretyships. 

What about “force majeure” or “impossibility of performance”? 

Force majeure” (a French legal term meaning “superior force”) is an event, either due to “natural causes” (earthquakes, cyclones and so on) or to “human agency” (war, riots, legislation and the like) that makes it impossible to comply with the lease. 

We really are sailing into uncharted waters here with worldwide debate over whether or not this pandemic is indeed a case of force majeure. There is bound to be a great deal of litigation before we can be certain whether or not the crisis (particularly the declaration of a national state of disaster and the lockdown period) will be accepted by our courts as a “force majeure” event. If it is, many tenants will argue that their failure to pay rental is not a breach of lease but rather a lease-destroying “supervening impossibility of performance”. 

So where do you stand? There are two main scenarios to consider –

  1. What does the lease say? The onus of proving a force majeure is on the tenant trying to escape from the lease, and the first thing for both parties to check is what the lease says.

    Many leases have a clause that deals with a tenant’s inability to occupy premises as a result of damage to or destruction of the premises which won’t apply here, but some leases do have specific force majeure clauses. If yours has such a clause you are bound by whatever it says so check whether a pandemic or government order to cease business might fall under the clause, and if so what results and remedies are specified.
  2. What must the tenant prove if there is nothing in the lease? If there is no force majeure clause in your lease, our common law applies. Your problem here is that there are a lot of grey areas involved and every case will be different, so what follows is just a general and non-exhaustive guide.  

    A tenant would have to prove not only that the impossibility caused a loss of beneficial occupation (entitling the tenant perhaps to a rebate of rental for the lockdown period, or perhaps frustrating the lease altogether) but in all probability also that it is –
  • “Unforeseeable with reasonable foresight”. In this regard we may well hear arguments along the lines of “the emergence of the coronavirus and its impacts were neither unexpected nor improbable”. Could such an argument prevail? Only time will tell.   
  • “Unavoidable with reasonable care”. 
  • An absolute as opposed to a probable impossibility. “The mere likelihood that performance will prove impossible is not sufficient to destroy the contract.” 
  • An absolute not a relative impossibility. “If I promise to do something which, in general, can be done, but which I cannot do, I am liable on the contract”.   
  • Not the fault of either party. “A party who has caused the impossibility cannot take advantage of it and so will be liable on the contract.”   
  • The “contrary common intention of the parties” could override the defence of impossibility. Consider any representations made by either party to the other that may be relevant.

Moreover our courts have held that “In each case it is necessary to ‘look to the nature of the contract, the relation of the parties, the circumstances of the case, and the nature of the impossibility invoked by the defendant, to see whether the general rule ought, in the particular circumstances of the case, to be applied’.”

That’s all fertile ground for expensive and draining litigation, at a time when neither of you is likely to have an appetite for either. 

Which brings us to…

A practical template for negotiation

Take this advice from Roman lawyer and statesman Cicero over two millennia ago: “Agree, for the law is costly”. 

So if you are a tenant, rather than just stopping rental payments and then having to fight it out through the legal system, ask your landlord to agree to a win-win compromise that will limit both short-term and long-term damage to your respective businesses.

Draw up a checklist including matters such as –

  • Do you or your landlord have any sort of insurance cover for this sort of disaster?
  • If you want to cancel the lease entirely, consider whether, if the protections of the Consumer Protection Act are available to you (see below*) it might pay you to give your 20 business days’ notice and pay the “reasonable cancellation penalty” the landlord is entitled to demand. (*You need to take advice on this – leases between “juristic persons” such as companies and trusts in particular are excluded from this particular protection).
  • Alternatively consider what you can offer the landlord to accept your cancellation without a fight. 
  • If you want to continue in the premises, make sure that your failure to pay on time is specifically recorded as not being a breach of the lease.
  • Decide whether you will ask for a full rental holiday, or a rental reduction. For how long? The better a tenant you have been, the more incentivized your landlord is going to be to help you stay in place. Offering an extension of the lease – if it ties in with your long-term planning – could help a lot with that.
  • If you run into a brick wall there, think of proposing that the arrears not be written off but rather just be deferred until your business is back up on its feet. Specify when payment of arrears will be made, what if any interest will be charged and so on.
  • If the tenant is a corporate entity and you signed a personal suretyship for it, don’t forget to specifically cover that aspect in your agreement. 
  • Remember to include in your agreement what happens to any deposit the landlord may be holding from you.
  • If you agree on a new or amended lease, think of including a professionally-drawn force majeure clause (or check an existing clause for possible update). 
Beyond leases – force majeure and contracts generally

Although this article specifically addresses landlords and tenants, the general principles of “force majeure” and “impossibility of performance” apply to all contracts and might in some cases entitle you to delay or avoid contractual obligations beyond lease agreements. Take professional advice specific to your circumstances!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Property Sellers – Prepare for SPLUMA

Property Sellers – Prepare for SPLUMA

Many factors can delay your property transfer, and all of them are likely to cost you. 

A last-minute rush to comply with statutory requirements is one such pitfall to avoid. Beware therefore of the possibility that you will soon need (in some parts of the country you may already need), to lodge before transfer a formal “SPLUMA” (Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act) certificate of compliance.  SPLUMA, without getting too technical, provides a framework for all provinces and municipalities to pass laws governing land use and development.

There is (at date of writing) some confusion over what is actually required, and although currently a formal certificate of compliance seems to be necessary in some municipal areas only, there is a suggestion that the requirement will apply everywhere by October 2020. 

It pays to comply anyway!

The important thing however is that – regardless of statutory requirements – you won’t want any problems with your buyer down the line complaining about unlawful building work or zoning contraventions. So it makes sense to ensure that you are fully compliant well before you start any sales process. 

Take professional advice (in good time so you can take corrective action if you need to) and make sure that –

  • Building plans for all structures have been approved,
  • Your property’s use complies with its zoning, and 
  • There are no encroachments over building lines and property boundaries. 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Your Neighbour Builds Without Plans – Can You Get a Demolition Order?

Your Neighbour Builds Without Plans – Can You Get a Demolition Order?

“The primary remedy therefore is an order for removal of the structure” (extract from the judgment below)

What can you do if your neighbour has started (or finished) building without the necessary municipal approvals?

In a nutshell, our courts will very probably assist you with a demolition order, as a recent High Court decision around a long-running property encroachment illustrates.

The 16 year saga of an encroaching garage

  • A couple, owners of a property next to a church Mission, expanded their house in 2004 by building a brick garage.
  • They thought they were building on their own land, having in 1998 built a wall along what they genuinely – but mistakenly – thought was the correct boundary between the two properties.
  • As we shall see below, their fatal mistake was building their garage without municipal plans or approval.
  • In fact the garage was inadvertently built on Mission land, but the Mission was having none of that –  
    • First in 2012 it asked the couple – and another neighbour in the same position – to demolish. 
    • When the couple refused (the other neighbour complied) the Mission in 2014 laid criminal charges against them for failing to comply with the relevant Act (the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act). These charges, for purely technical reasons, failed to stick.
    • On pressed the Mission, this time turning to the local municipality for help in 2016. The municipality duly issued a formal Notice requiring demolition of the garage as it had been erected illegally without plans or permission. The couple simply refused to either receive the Notice or to remove the encroaching garage.
  • Which brings us to the High Court in 2017, with the Mission applying for a demolition order and the couple asking the Court to rather order the Mission to transfer the relevant piece of its land to them against payment of reasonable compensation. 
What about alternatives to demolition?

A court deciding a demolition application has “discretion to reach an equitable and reasonable solution in terms of the common law by ordering payment or compensation rather than removal in cases where the cost of removal would be disproportionate to the benefit derived from the removal”. 

In this respect said the Court (emphasis supplied) “the encroaching owner’s own conduct plays an important role” and “while one is acutely aware of the financial implications, inconvenience and disruption which the partial demolition will cause the [couple], the upholding of the doctrine of legality, a fundamental component of the rule of law, must inevitably trump such personal considerations.” 

Commenting on the couple’s “obstructive behaviour” in this case, and finding that they “are indeed in legal and administrative breach of the law … to allow them to keep the structures where they are, would be to perpetuate the illegality”, the Court ordered the couple to demolish their illegal garage within 90 days.

So if you are the neighbour planning to build…

Whilst the case in question deals with encroachment on another’s land, our courts have applied exactly the same principles to a wide variety of “neighbour dispute” cases – sea view obstructions, failure to observe building lines and the like.

So don’t even think of starting to build without having all necessary municipal plan approvals and permissions in place! 

And if you are the objecting neighbour…

The couple in this case put up an argument that the Mission couldn’t demand demolition as it had “acquiesced in their occupation of the relevant land because it did not object when they built the wall on the church ground in 1998, and did not complain when they built the ‘offending’ garage in 2004 or 2005.” 

Factually the Mission’s long history of actively objecting to the unlawful construction put an end to that argument, but the longer you delay in objecting and taking action the greater your risk of facing a similar argument. Take immediate action against any neighbour building unlawfully.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Budget 2020: Good News for Property Sellers and Buyers, and Some Useful Tax Calculators

Budget 2020: Good News for Property Sellers and Buyers, and Some Useful Tax Calculators

“To support the property market, the threshold for transfer duties is adjusted” (Finance Minister Tito Mboweni)

Transfer Duty Exemption Up

Some good news for property sellers and buyers in particular is the increase in the transfer duty exemption to R1m. See the table below for details and note that with all the brackets being adjusted upwards, buyers at every level will save – for example the buyer of a R2.5m house will save R17,000.

 (Source: National Treasury
Some useful Tax Calculators for you
  • How long will you work for the taxman today?

    Input your salary into the 2020 Tax Clock calculator and find out how many hours you will spend today working for the taxman, and at what time precisely you will finally start working for yourself (warning – it’s not pretty!).
  • How will your income tax change? 

    Put your monthly taxable income into Fin24’s Budget 2020 Income Tax Calculator to find out.  
  • How much extra will your sin taxes cost you this year? 

    Work out how much more you will be shelling out for spirits, wine, beer and cigarettes (or how much you will be saving if you don’t indulge!) with Fin24’s Budget 2020 Sin Tax Calculator.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

You have Successfully Subscribed!