Understanding tenant rights to property possession

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It often happens that a tenant, for whatever reason, refuses, neglects or is unable to pay rent and falls into arrears. A landlord, frustrated with the tenant and the legal eviction process, may be tempted to find ways to get rid of the tenant. Cutting off water and electricity, changing locks, and using intimidation tactics are just some of the examples being used by landlords to dispossess a tenant.

The tenant, however, is protected by law and has a right to undisturbed use and enjoyment of the property for the duration of the lease agreement. When a situation arises that disturbs this use and enjoyment, a tenant may approach the court for a spoliation order, otherwise known as a mandament van spolie, to restore his possession and/or use of the property. This article briefly explains the application and what needs to be proved by the tenant for the successful application of a spoliation order.

The history and basis of a mandament van spolie

South African property law is rooted in Roman and Roman-Dutch law. A distinction is drawn between ownership and possession, and different remedies exist to protect these rights. Ownership is seen as a real right and an owner can protect their right to property by the rei vindicatio action. The right to property, on the other hand, is the right to possess and use the thing and not a right to the thing itself, which is attributed to the owner of the thing. Only certain rights are protected, and they include servitutal rights (e.g. right of way or access to water) and contractual rights found in lease agreements (e.g. rights to electricity, water, and telecommunications).

When an application is made, the court’s focus should not be directed at the merits of the case – it is not relevant at the time who the owner of the property is. The only factor that the court needs to establish is whether the applicant had possession and use of the property or thing and that their right to possess the property or use thereof was unlawfully interfered with (spoliated).

The protection of specific performance (contractual right) cannot be enforced by using a spoliation application. For example, a lessee cannot use a spoliation application if the lessor refuses to hand over the keys to the lessee before occupation takes place, or if a tenant refuses to vacate a property after it is sold and a new tenant needs to take occupation. In these instances, the party will have to find recourse in contractual remedies or the eviction process.

The application process and implications of a spoliation order

A mandament van spolie is a remedy to restore possession and is usually brought on an ex parte urgent basis. Ex parte means that you do not have to give notice of the application to the other party before it is heard by the court. Its objective is to restore the possession of the applicant to the status it had before spoliation took place.

The applicant will bring an application on notice or ex parte, and then an interim order with a return date (rule nisi) will be issued. The applicant must satisfy two requirements: that they were in peaceful, undisturbed possession and use of the property and that they were unlawfully deprived of that possession. The applicant will file a founding affidavit to set out the facts and establish the requirements. After an interim order is granted, the landlord is ordered to restore possession to the tenant. The Sheriff of the Court can be instructed to assist the applicant if the landlord still refuses to restore possession to the tenant. The landlord may file an answering affidavit and on the return date (rule nisi) the landlord will have the opportunity to prove that he legally took possession. The spoliation order is final; however, it can be taken on appeal.

A landlord must be weary of tactics that will make him guilty of taking the law into his own hands. A spoliation order is not often refused, and the court may order that the landlord pay the costs of the application. The tenant may also lawfully refuse to pay rent while he is unlawfully deprived of the use and enjoyment of the property.

While every reasonable effort is taken to ensure the accuracy and soundness of the contents of this publication, neither the writers of the articles nor the publisher will bear any responsibility for the consequences of any actions based on information or recommendations contained herein.  Our material is for informational purposes.

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