TRUST LITIGATION: WHO DECIDES WHAT?

This article deals with the questions of who can institute litigation on behalf of a trust, as well as with the question of how jurisdiction is determined with regards to trusts.

Who can institute a claim?

A trust is not a legal person and cannot litigate in its own name. The trustees play a vital role in any litigation in which a trust might be involved. There are three overriding principles regarding trust administration:

  1. The trustees are obliged to give effect to the provisions of the trust deed.
  2. The trustees must perform their duties with the necessary “care, diligence and skill which can be expected of a person who manages the affairs of another”.
  3. Any person acting as a trustee must exercise discretion, where allowed, with the necessary objectivity and independence.

Section 6(1) of the Trust Property Control Act (the Act) determines the following: “any person whose appointment as trustee in terms of a trust instrument, section 7 or a court order comes into force after the commencement of the Act, shall act in that capacity only if authorised in writing by the Master”. In Watt v Sea Plant Products Bpk, Judge Conradie interpreted this section to mean that a trustee may not, prior to authorisation, acquire rights for, or contractually incur liabilities on behalf of the trust”. Thus, a trustee can only contract and institute legal proceedings in his/her capacity as trustee once a letter of authority has been issued by the Master of the High Court.

In Nieuwoudt v Vrystaat Mielies (Edms) Bpk), an agreement was held to be invalid and unenforceable because the trustees had not acted jointly nor reached a unanimous decision. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that trustees must act jointly when entering into contracts or when instituting litigation.

A trustee has a duty to vindicate trust property and to collect due debts. This duty goes hand in hand with the duty to conserve trust property and ensures that the trustee is in control of the property which forms part of the trust fund. A trustee further has locus standi to defend actions instituted against the trustee to ensure that the trust property is conserved.

Should all the trustees be joined in an action to enforce a right of the trust?

Judge Cameron held in the Goolam Ally Family Trust case that all the trustees must be joined in suing and all must be sued. Therefore, all the trustees will be joined in their official capacity when instituting legal proceedings.

In Khabola NO v Ralithabo NO, the court quoted the general rule regarding locus standi as follows: Any person who has a direct or substantial interest in the matter has the required locus standi to institute legal proceedings. The learned judge found that the underlying contractual relationship between trustees could be equated to a partnership.

Jurisdiction:

For jurisdictional purposes, a partnership “resides” at the place where its principal place of business is situated, and if the principle set out in abovementioned case is followed – a trust also “resides” where its principal place of business is situated.

In Bonugli v The Standard Bank of South Africa Limited, the court referred to section 5 of the Act  which determines that a person whose appointment as trustee comes into effect after the commencement of this act, shall furnish the Master with an address for the service upon him of notices and process and shall, in case of change of address, within 14 days notify the Master by registered post of the new address. The cause of action arose in Johannesburg, and one of the defendants (a trustee in his representative capacity) was resident in Australia. The address which was used in the summons was the address given to the Master in terms of section 5 of the Act. A special plea with regards to lack of jurisdiction was raised, but the Cape Town High Court found that it had the necessary jurisdiction to hear the matter.

There are considerable differences between a partnership and a trust, but with regards to jurisdiction the general principles applicable to a partnership can also be applied to a trust – namely considerations of convenience and common sense for its conclusion to entertain a claim. The Cape Town High Court had jurisdiction to hear the Bonugli matter because the first defendant was resident within its jurisdiction, and because the address listed in terms of section 5 of the Act was within the jurisdiction. Considerations of common sense and convenience also required that the court should adjudicate the issue between the plaintiff and all the defendants.  It would have been impractical to institute a claim based on the same set of facts in two different courts, because the trustees were resident in different courts’ jurisdictions.

There remains some uncertainty regarding which court should have jurisdiction to hear a claim instituted by a trust or a claim against a trust. There appears to be three possibilities in this regard: Firstly, if the Bonugli judgment was followed, the residency of one trustee should be sufficient to establish jurisdiction. Secondly, the address provided in terms of Section 5 of the Act could be used to establish jurisdiction. Thirdly, the court where the trust’s principle place of business is situated could have jurisdiction. Hopefully the position regarding which court has jurisdiction to hear claims instituted by a trust or against a trust will be properly aired in the courts soon, to provide more certainty regarding this aspect.

Reference List:

Books:

  • Lexisnexis Trust Law and Practice, P A Olivier, S Strydom, GPJ van den Berg, October 2017
  • Civil Procedure: A Practical Guide, Petè, Hulme, Du Plessis, Palmer, Sibanda, Oxford University Press.

Acts:

  • Trust Property Control Act 57 of 1988

Cases:

  • Watt v Sea Plant Products Bpk (1998) 4 All SA 109 (C)
  • Nieuwoudt v Vrystaat Mielies (Edms) Bpk)
  • Goolam Ally Family Trust t/a Textile, Curtaining and Trimming v Textile, Curtaining and Trimming (Pty) Ltd 1989 (4) SA 985 (C) at 988D-E
  • Khabola NO v Ralithabo NO (5512/2010) (2011) ZAFSHC 62 (24 March 2011)
  • Bonugli v The Standard Bank of South Africa Limited 266/2011) (2012) ZASCA 48 (30 March 2012)

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)

CAN TRUSTEES BAN YOUR PET IN A SECTIONAL TITLE SCHEME?

Problems around the ownership of pets are common amongst owners of sectional title properties, but while laws may be imposed by the trustees of the homeowners’ associations, the requirement for a reasonable approach is entrenched in the very laws which govern how a sectional title scheme should be managed.

Where the trustees have reasonably, after following due process and considering all relevant factors, withdrawn their consent to keep a pet, the owner concerned is then not entitled to continue keeping that pet in the scheme.

This is according to the Prescribed conduct rule 1 in Annexure 9 of the Sectional Titles Regulations which deals with the keeping of pets, including reptiles or birds.

It states:

“1. (1) An owner or occupier of a section shall not, without the consent in writing of the trustees, which approval may not unreasonably be withheld, keep any animal, reptile or bird in a section or on the common property.

(2) When granting such approval, the trustees may prescribe any reasonable condition.”

The phrases, “may not unreasonably” and “may prescribe any reasonable”, clearly seek to assist in the creation of harmony amongst a community living side by side in a sectional title development.

These regulations exist to protect the pet owner from unreasonably strict rules, and equally, they must confer on the other owners the right to a nuisance-free and peaceful environment. This means that both parties need to consider each other’s needs.

This consideration, in granting or refusing consent, will be central to inquiry: will it unreasonably interfere with other’s rights to use and enjoy their units; and which conditions would be appropriate in these circumstances to ensure that the risk of nuisance is reduced to a reasonable level?

For this reason, owners or occupiers can only keep pets in a section or on any part of the common property with the written consent of the trustees. However, the trustees cannot unreasonably withhold that permission. An absolute prohibition to keep a pet could be considered unreasonable and if consent to keep a pet is unreasonably withheld, the owner can take the matter to court.

The trustees must furthermore, base their decision on the facts and circumstances of the particular case. The decision to either grant or refuse consent should be recorded in the minutes of the trustee’s meeting, giving reasons that illustrate they have applied their minds to the particular set of facts.

An example of a court case which arose from a dispute regarding permission to keep a pet in a sectional title development was Body Corporate of The Laguna Ridge Scheme No 152/1987 v Dorse 1999 (2) SA 512 (D), in which it was held that the trustees are obliged to individually consider each request for permission to keep a pet, and to base their decision on the facts and circumstances of each particular case.

A further extract from this case pointed out that trustees are not entitled to refuse an application on the basis that they are afraid of creating a precedent. The trustees were, in this case, found to have been grossly unreasonable and have failed to apply their minds when they refused the Applicant permission to keep a small dog.

The question of the reasonableness of the actions of the trustees, in granting or withholding permission and setting conditions, will turn on the nature of the pet concerned and the circumstances of the scheme. In dealing with any application for permission to keep a pet, the trustees should consider what type of pet it is, and whether there are already other similar pets at the scheme.

It is unlikely that any action by the trustees to remove a ‘companion animal’ or ‘service animal’, such as a guide dog owned by a blind or partially sighted owner, would be held to be reasonable in the absence of a clear nuisance caused by the animal. The fact that a person sometimes forms an extremely strong emotional tie with their pet could also be an important consideration when the trustees decide whether or not to grant permission.

The trustees are not, however, powerless in situations where the conditions of permission to keep a pet are not being met. The trustees can withdraw permission if it is reasonable to do so. Examples include if the pet is causing a nuisance to other owners or occupiers (e.g. barking persistently), or the pet is considered dangerous to other owners or occupiers.

Where the trustees have reasonably, after following due process, withdrawn their consent to keep a pet, the owner concerned is then not entitled to continue keeping that pet in the scheme. However, the enforcement of this could be tricky for the trustees. The body corporate is not entitled to forcibly remove a pet from an owner’s possession. This can only be achieved by a court order, if – for example – there are too many dogs being kept in an inadequate space, the trustees can get the assistance from the local SPCA who can be contacted to come to the scheme to do an inspection in loco. If it is justified, they will implement the necessary legal steps to have the dogs removed.

Careful consideration and the application of the principles as set out in the rules of the scheme and the above-mentioned regulations will lead not only to peaceful co-existence, but also healthy growth in property values for the developments implementing such approach. A harmonious board of trustees results in a happy community, which in turn will ensure a good name for any development.

Reference List:

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)

THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF TRUSTS

Trusts have various advantages, but unfortunately, there are also disadvantages. Although this is not a complete synopsis of all the pros and cons, it gives a general overview of what’s involved.

Advantages:

  1. Growth taking place in the Trust assets settles in the Trust and not in your personal estate.
  2. By selling the assets to the Trust, the amount owed to you by the Trust will remain outstanding on the loan account and shall be regarded as an asset to your estate.
  3. A Trust offers protection against problems should you become mentally incompetent.
  4. A Trust remains confidential as opposed to documents like wills and records of deceased estates which are public documents and therefore open for inspection.
  5. A Trust can offer financial protection to disabled dependents, children or beneficiaries with special needs.
  6. A Trust can evade the administrative costs of consecutive estates by making provision for consecutive beneficiaries.
  7. A Trust can lighten the emotional stress on your family when you die because the Trust will continue without any of the formalities that are required from a deceased estate.
  8. By choosing your Trustees well you can ensure professional asset and investment management.
  9. The Trust will enable you to have a degree of control over the assets in the Trust after your death, via the Trustees.
  10. After your death and before the estate has been settled the Trust can provide a source of income for your dependent(s).
  11. You will prevent your minor child’s inheritance from being transferred to the Guardian’s Fund.
  12. You will avoid the problem of trying to distribute assets equally among the heirs.
  13. Levels of income may be varied according to the changing needs of the beneficiaries at the discretion of the Trustees.
  14. Due to the assets remaining the property of the Trust and not the beneficiaries it need not be included in people’s estates as part of their assets when they die, which effects a saving in Estate duty.
  15. The Trust assets will be protected from creditors for the same reason.

Disadvantages:

  1. You don’t have full control of your assets, as the other Trustees also have a say in the matter.
  2. A Trust is registered and the authorities can gain access to it.
  3. You could possible choose the wrong Trustees. You could expect problems if the Trustees are vying heirs. This shows how important it is to have at least one independent Trustee.

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)