TRUSTEES OF BODY CORPORATE NOT ALLOWED TO DISCONNECT ELECTRICITY OR WATER SUPPLY TO A SECTION AS A DEBT COLLECTION MEASURE

The default of levy payments is a frequent problem for the trustees of body corporates as well as the managing agent. It is the way in which the defaulting owner is treated and the outstanding debt collected, that will make the difference between a functioning, financially stable sectional title scheme or an impending disaster zone.

In these testing economic times, monthly levy payments are sometimes considered by owners of sectional title sections to be an optional expense in making ends meet on a tight budget. Once an owner has got away with defaulting on one payment, habitual default becomes easy, and more so if the trustees and management agent are slow to react to the failure to pay. The problem is worsened by the fact that the monthly levy is carefully calculated prior to the annual general meeting to be the minimum amount possible, in an attempt to accommodate the owners. However, these small monthly levies could easily accrue over a few months to a significant amount, aggravated by interest and reflected as a substantial outstanding debt.

These non-payers place severe financial restraints on the cash flow of a body corporate which is largely dependent on the timeous monthly payments by all its members to fulfil its monthly obligations to, inter alia, municipalities regarding water and common area electricity usage, security, and general upkeep of the property. If the body corporate does not have large financial reserves on which it can rely in the event of default by its members, the impact of the default can be severe and can cause unnecessary hardship for other owners. There are known instances of special levies raised in order to assist the body corporate in its financial hardship.

Many trustees and managing agents, in order to recover outstanding amounts, revert to taking the law into their own hands by cutting off the water and electricity supply to such members’ sections or units. Some have even passed rules which allow for such actions. Justifications for these actions by trustees and management agents are abundant, but none of these are legally sound or will stand in court.

By withholding the water and/or electricity supply to the section, whether or not it is allowed for in the rules, the trustees and management agent not only disregard the owner’s constitutional rights to access to water as well as the provisions of the electricity act, but also specific stipulations of the Sectional Title Act, Act 95 of 1986 as amended (“the Act”) and confirmed in case law. Such trustees and managing agents expose themselves and the trustees in their personal capacity, to an application by the owner and/or the occupier, against the spoliation of such services, or access with a court order for immediate re-connection. The body corporate or management agent may not interfere with water and electricity services rendered to a section or unit. The penalty will be a cost order, if not granted on a punitive scale, red faces, and a lot to answer to at the next annual general meeting.

The Act clearly stipulates in Section 37(2) that trustees must approach by action any court, including the Magistrate’s court, for recovery of any and all contributions levied under the provision of Section 37(1), which include monthly levies, special levies, interest, and legal costs on attorney and client scale.

The trustees and managing agent have no choice herein. Prompt debt collection action taken against any owner immediately on default, will be the best defence. Therefore the trustees must ensure that the appointed management agent either has a proven track record or a detailed collection policy prior to appointment of such agent. We all know that the wheels of justice turn slowly, and that it can take months for the default judgement to be granted and the warrant issued. By delaying the collection process the outstanding levy account increases exponentially, together with the burden on paying owners.

Therefore, the trustees themselves should keep a watchful eye on monthly payments and ensure that defaulting owners are immediately contacted by the management agent and, if they persist in the default, handed over to competent attorneys for collection. The sooner, the better. The old adage “absentee landlords gather no crops” is fitting, and trustees should ensure that the management agents attend to defaulters speedily and effectively in the interest of both their own property investment and that of the other owners in the sectional title scheme.

For further reading, see the judgement by Blieden J with Serobe AJ concurring in Queensgate Body Corporate vs MJV Claesen delivered on 26 November 1998 in the Witwatersrand Local Division, case number A3076/1998, and case law referred to therein.

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)