ANOTHER COURT VICTORY FOR CONSUMERS AGAINST MUNICIPALITIES
A few days ago, the Constitutional Court brought finality to an issue that had been
a thorn in the flesh for many property owners. In an unanimous decision, written
by Judge Cameron, the Court found that municipalities cannot hold a new property
owner liable for a previous owner’s municipal debt.
Previously, municipalities often cut off services to owners, or refused to issue
clearance certificates, unless all debts including historical debts of previous owners
have been paid.
This placed an unfair burden on the new owner, who was now virtually forced to pay
all outstanding amounts, even for rates or services that had nothing to do with him.
If he failed to pay, the municipality could proceed with judgment and sale in execution
of the property.
Whilst the Court did not declare the provisions of Section 118(3) of Municipalities
Systems Act (32 of 2000) invalid, it vindicated owners by stating that the proper
interpretation thereof was not to empower municipalities to claim old owners’ debts
from new owners.
This ruling follows on other rulings by our courts against municipalities in recent
A consumer who receives a bill for water or electricity for any period older than
three years, may refuse to pay because the claim has prescribed. That period of prescription
starts running from the time when the municipality should have billed the consumer.
Regarding the practice of some municipalities to request the consumer to record a
reading of a meter, the court stated it is not the consumer’s responsibility to read
meters and determine what the consumption has been.
A purchaser may not be refused to enter a service agreement with a
Municipality because the historical debts have not been paid in full.
The Municipality may not disconnect services due to previous owners’ debts.
On a practical note for our readers, it behoves property owners not to fall in arrears
with their municipal accounts. The municipalities still possess enough muscle through
legal means to enforce payment, in spite of the recent court cases.