Month: January 2016

What constitutes fair dismissal?

A2_BLabour law emphasises that every employee has the right not to be dismissed unfairly. This law defines the meaning of dismissal and when it may lawfully occur. Substantive and procedural fairness determines whether the dismissal was fair.

Dismissal means the following: The termination of a contract of employment with or without notice, and also if the employer fails to provide a fixed-term contract, or he does renew the contract, but on less favourable terms than the employee had reasonably expected.

Section 188 of the Labour Relations Act provides that dismissal is fair if the employer can prove that the dismissal is related to the employee's conduct or capacity, or if it can be proven that the dismissal is based on the employer's operational requirements. Dismissal is usually fair if a fair procedure was followed. Good practices are set out in legislation which outlines the discharge processes and must be taken into account.

Labour legislation provides for three different types of discharge, namely dismissal due to misconduct, poor performance or operational requirements. Certain procedures must be followed for each type of discharge. Employers sometimes confuse misconduct with poor performance. It is very important that the correct procedure is followed, but it is also necessary that the cause of the unsatisfactory behaviour is determined.

Misconduct is when the employee has violated certain rules such as rules against dishonesty or theft, or has refused to obey reasonable and lawful instructions. In these situations the employee has decided not to honour the code of conduct. The employee has knowingly violated a rule and therefore the person should be disciplined. This may result in written warnings and/or possible dismissal.

In contrast, poor performance involves situations where the employee is not in deliberate violation of any regulations but it may involve circumstances over which the employee may not necessarily have control. In this case other factors could be the cause of poor performance, such as lack of resources, inexperience, inadequate training or poor health. It is clear that the employee is not directly responsible for the behaviour and therefore disciplinary actions cannot be taken. The employee cannot be blamed for something like illness, therefore a counselling process is followed in lieu of a disciplinary hearing in order to find solutions for the poor performance.

The last type of dismissal is due to operational requirements. This type of discharge has to do with economic conditions, including a shortage of work or a lack of money. These are cases where the employer can no longer afford to retain a certain number of employees or new computers or sophisticated equipment have been acquired which renders a number of employees redundant. These are factors beyond the control of the employee and involves steps that the employer takes to protect his or her business from being ruined financially.

It is very important that the process contained in section 189 of the Labour Relations Act be followed here. This process requires the employer to engage with the employee in a meaningful way in order to negotiate and disclose certain information before dismissal can take place.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other 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 legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

A promise to marry

A1_BIn this article the legal consequences of breaking off an engagement will be discussed. Is it a contract, and if it is, can you institute a claim for damages due to a breach of this contract?

In order to enter into a valid engagement to be married the following requirements must be met:

 

  • Both parties must have the capacity to act, which generally means that parties must be older than 18 years or if they are minors, that they have the necessary consent from their guardians.
  • Both parties must voluntarily consent to the engagement. A material mistake, such as the identity of either of the parties, will render the engagement void. There must also be no misrepresentations made by either of the parties; in other words, where it would have resulted in the contract not being concluded, had the other party known the truth.
  • Both parties must be permitted by law to marry each other. For example, you may only be engaged to one party, unless a polygamous engagement applies under African Customary Law.
  • One may not marry a sibling.

It is important to note that there is no law in South Africa that requires an engagement before    marriage.

Once a date for the marriage has been determined, there is a reciprocal duty to marry on that date, unless the date is changed by mutual agreement. Further, if no date has been determined, it is presumed that the marriage will take place within a reasonable time. Nevertheless, either of the parties may terminate the engagement, which may or may not attract a claim for damages or return of gifts.

An engagement can be terminated in the following ways:

  • Marriage
  • Death of either parties
  • Mutual agreement
  • Withdrawal of parental consent
  • Breach of promise
  • Termination by one party that is justified and based on sound reasons

It is important to establish whether there is a just cause for cancellation. If there is, the engagement may be validly terminated. A reason such as sterility or criminal activity, if it was only brought to the attention of the other party after agreeing to marry, may provide enough grounds to break off the engagement. If both parties agree to terminate the engagement, all gifts given in anticipation of the marriage, including the engagement ring, must be returned.

If one party breaches the promise to marry without justifiable reasons, the innocent party can, according to our law, institute a claim for damages, provided that the losses were within the contemplation of the parties. The innocent party can claim expenses incurred in anticipation of the wedding, thus placing the innocent party in the financial position he or she would have been had the engagement never been entered into. Further, the innocent party may keep or claim back the engagement ring as part of costs incurred.

In the case of Van Jaarsveld v Bridges, the court decided that a party cannot successfully institute a claim for prospective losses on the basis of a breach of promise to marry, because an engagement is not an ordinary contract in the context of contractual damages and should therefore not be placed on a rigid contractual footing. This means that a party may not institute a claim for damages placing him or her in the position he would have been had they gone through with the marriage. Previous court judgements indicate that compensation will be awarded at the discretion of the court and that each case must be evaluated on the basis of its individual circumstances.

In conclusion, it is important to note that a promise to marry is an agreement which attracts legal consequences; therefore one should not be hasty when deciding to ask the big question.

Bibliography:

Van Jaarsveld v Bridges 2010 (4) SA 558 (SCA).

Cloete v Maritz 2013 (5) SA448 (WCC).

Bull v Taylor 1965 (4) SA 29 (A).

Georgina Guedes, 23 October 2013, Mail and Guardian, “Five fallacies about engagement rings”.

A Guide to Divorce and Separation in South Africa, “Engagement and the Law”.

Ronald & Bobroff, “The engagement”.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other 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 legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

To prosecute or not

A3_BAn action may be a crime or a delict but where your actions were trivial, a court may decide not to prosecute you or a judge will not entertain a claim against you due to the de minimis non curat lex rule.

If you find yourself charged with a minor crime such as theft for taking one small sweet from a store then the de minimis non curat lex rule (de minimis), which means “the law does not concern itself with trifles”, may come in handy for you.

De minimis is a decision of a court to allow unlawful conduct to go unpunished due to its triviality. An example of such a decision is where the Appellate Division in S v Kgogong[1] refused to convict a person of theft because the accused stole a worthless piece of paper. Another example would be from the case of S v Dane[2] where a person accused of malicious damage to property was acquitted because all he had done was to cut a small portion of another person’s hedge.

The application of the de minimis maxim is very limited in regard to statutory offences. This was discussed in the case of DPP (EC) v Klue[3] in which the High Court overturned the Magistrate’s decision that the offence of driving a vehicle on a public road with a blood alcohol concentration exceeding the prescribed minimum was de minimis.

The High Court held in the abovementioned case that the aims and objectives of the legislation containing the offence are important and that the Road Traffic Act,[4] in particular the provision offended, is aimed at reducing road accidents. The High Court also held that there was no room for the Magistrate to apply the de minimis maxim because the minimum amounts had already been determined after careful consideration by the Legislature.

The de minimis maxim also applies to criminal assault charges and delictual claims. In regard to delictual claims, when a person’s bodily integrity has been wrongfully and intentionally infringed, he or she can claim satisfaction with the actio iniurarum unless the de minimis rule applies to his or her claim. In regard to criminal assault charges trivial assaults, such as a slap on the back or a shove in a crowd may be disregarded in terms of the de minimis rule. This would have to be seen in context of the nature of the act, especially where one is dealing with sexual assault, as a mere touch could be very serious and in these circumstances the de minimis rule would not come into play.

The purpose of the de minimis rule is to avoid the burdening of the courts with minimal complaints which would result in wasted costs, resources and time. It is further to avoid the situation where more serious crimes and delictual claims take even longer to be dealt with due to these trivial issues taking up the court’s time. This will result in the criminal justice system and the court system being brought into disrepute for not being able to deal with serious matters efficiently.

Bibliography

  •  Burchell J: Principles of Criminal Law 2006 (3rd ed) 355 – 356
  • S v Kgogong 1980 (3) SA 600 (A)
  • S v Dane 1957 (2) SA 472 (N)
  • DPP (EC) v Klue 2003 (1) SACR 389 (E)
  •  Road Traffic Act 93 of 1996

[1] 1980 (3) SA 600 (A)

[2] 1957 (2) SA 472 (N)

[3] 2003 (1) SACR 389 (E)

[4] 93 of 1996

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other 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 legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

When does a claim prescribe?

A4_BThe issue of the legal nature of a vindicatory claim and whether it gives rise to a debt that is subject to the three year extinctive prescription period has been decided differently by different divisions of the High Court. On 28 May 2015 the Supreme Court of Appeal came to a final decision in Absa Bank v Keet[1] as to whether claims under the actio rei vindicatio prescribe after 3 years or not.

One of the first questions that your attorney will ask you when you consult him is when your cause of action arose so that they can ascertain whether your claim has prescribed. If your claim is prescribed, it means that you no longer have any legal remedies available to you. Claims arising from a debt prescribe after three years and the rules of prescription are set out in the Prescription Act, 1969.

There is one specific claim where the application of the 3 year prescription period was uncertain and this was in regard to claims under the actio rei vindicatio. This is a legal action by which the plaintiff demands that the defendant return a thing that belongs to the plaintiff, and it may only be used when the plaintiff owns the thing and the defendant is impeding the plaintiff’s possession of the thing.

A rei vindicatio action is often used in disputes surrounding instalment sales where ownership only passes on the payment of a last instalment or where instalments are not duly paid. This is mostly coupled with a claim for cancellation. In other words, the seller cancels the sale agreement and claims return of the thing sold.

In the case of Absa Bank v Keet[2] the seller of a motor vehicle attempted to cancel the sale agreement and to claim the return of the vehicle sold. The purchaser of the vehicle responded to this claim with a special plea stating that the claim for the return of the vehicle had prescribed.

The reason for stating that the claim had prescribed was that the agreement on which the seller sued would have come to an end on the date on which he contended the amount outstanding became due and payable, and that it was more than 3 years since that amount became due.

In the case of Staegemann v Langenhoven[3] it was held that a vindicatory claim does not prescribe after three years. The High Court in the Keet case held that this case was wrongly decided because if Staegemann were correct, ‘the Bank could withhold its demand for the tractor for another decade or even longer, and then demand return of the vehicle so that it could calculate its damages’.

The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in the Keet case had to decide whether the High Court was correct in holding that the seller’s claim for the repossession of its vehicle is a ‘debt’, which for the purposes of the Prescription Act prescribes after three years.

The SCA made an important distinction between extinctive prescription and acquisitive prescription to come to its final decision. Extinctive prescription deals with a creditor’s right of action against a debtor, which is a personal right. On the other hand, acquisitive prescription deals with acquiring real rights to property (in terms of the Prescription Act a person can acquire ownership of property after 30 years of uninterrupted possession). Real rights are primarily concerned with the relationship between a person and a thing and personal rights are concerned with a relationship between two persons.

The person who is entitled to a real right over a thing can, by way of vindicatory action, claim that thing from any individual who interferes with his right. Such a right is the right of ownership. If, however, the right is not an absolute, but a relative right to a thing, so that it can only be enforced against a determined individual or a class of individuals, then it is a personal right.[4]

The Supreme Court of Appeal is therefore of the opinion that to consider a vindicatory action as a ‘debt’ which prescribes after three years is contrary to the scheme of the Act and that this would undermine the significance of the distinction which the Prescription Act draws between extinctive prescription and acquisitive prescription. In other words, what the creditor loses as a result of operation of extinctive prescription is his right of action against the debtor, which is a personal right. The creditor does not lose a right to a thing.

The SCA has therefore made it clear that to equate the vindicatory action with a ‘debt’ has the unintended and absurd consequence in that by way of extinctive prescription the debtor acquires ownership of a creditor’s property after three years instead of 30 years. The vindicatory action therefore does not prescribe after three years.

[1] (817/13) [2015]  ZASCA 81 (28 May 2015)

[2] (817/13) [2015] ZASCA 81 (28 May 2015)

[3] Staegemann v Langenhoven & others 2011 (5) SA 648 (WCC).

[4] Wessels Law of Contract in South Africa 2 ed vol 1 p 3-4.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other 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 legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

 

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