The small claims court


Last year Simon Letseka, who comes from Garankua, was hired to do some building and plumbing work in Johannesburg. The man who hired him, Ben De Koker, promised to pay Simon R1250 for the job.


When Simon finished the job, De Koker paid him R850. He said that Simon did not do the job properly – and that was why he was paying Simon R400 less than he promised.


Simon felt cheated and decided to fight for his money. On 11 January he took De Koker to the Small Claims Court in Johannesburg… and he won!


The Commissioner (Judge) in the court listened to both men – and ordered De Koker to pay Simon R250. When Simon left the court, he was happy. “It is better – at least I am getting something. If I did not bring this case to court, I would have got nothing,” he said.


But not everybody wins in the Small Claims Court. Montgomery Lukhalo came to the court to sue a pensioner, Mrs E. Mgqueko. He said he built her a tool room and a garage on a stand in Klipspruit, Soweto.


Montgomery said that Mrs Mgqueko paid him only R300 and that she still owed him another R1000. But Mrs Mgqueko showed the Commissioner a notebook. In the book she had written that she had paid Montgomery more than R1600 – and he had signed the book. Montgomery lost the case and the old woman did not have to pay him anything.


CHEAP AND SIMPLE


The Small Claims Courts were started in South Africa in 1985. There are already 34 of these courts in different parts of the country. More will open in the future.


The Small Claims Court has been called “the little peoples’ court” because ordinary, working people can go there to fight for their rights. The court is simple and cheap to use. It costs only R8.25 to take a case to one of these courts.


Rich people do not have a better chance just because they can afford a lawyer – nobody is allowed to have a lawyer in the Small Claims Court. Each person tells the Commissioner their side of the story. Then the Commissioner decides on a fair settlement.


You can take many different kinds of cases to the Small Claims Court. But there are some cases the court cannot hear. For example, you cannot ask for more than R1500 in the Small Claims Court. You cannot sue the government (the state) and you cannot ask for a divorce.


SOME EXAMPLES


Here are some examples of the kinds of cases you can take to the Small Claims Court:

  1. If you buy a radio from a shop and you find that the radio does not work, you can claim your money back.

  2. If somebody assaults you, you can claim damages for the assault. Damages means money for your medical expenses, pain and suffering.

  3. If you put a deposit on something, and then later find that the shop has sold it to someone else, you can claim your deposit back.

  4. If you sell something and do not get paid, you can claim your money.

  5. If you lend money or anything else to another person and that person does not give it back, you can claim it back.

  6. If you take something to a shop for repairs and the shop does not repair it properly, then you can claim the money it cost you to have the repairs done properly by somebody else.

  7. If you are a domestic worker, you can go to the Small Claims Court to demand notice pay from your employer if your employer fires you without a good reason and without giving you notice pay. A domestic worker can also go to the Small Claims Court if your employer does not pay you what you were promised.

  8. There are many other problems you can take to the Small Claims Court. If you think somebody has done you wrong, the clerk of the court will be able to tell you if you can take the person to court.

TAKING A CASE TO COURT


This is what you must do if you want to use the Small Claims Court:

  1. Contact the person who has done you wrong. Let us say that a man owes you money – speak to him, telephone him or write to him and ask him to pay you your money.

  2. If the person will still not give you your money, you can now start taking action by writing a letter of demand. In the letter of demand you must say exactly how much money you are owed and what for. Look at the example of a letter of demand at the top of the page.

  3. Send the letter of demand to the person by registered post. Remember to keep the post office slip to prove that you posted the letter. If you can, make a photocopy of your letter of demand.

  4. If you do not get your money after 14 days, you must go to the clerk of the Small Claims Court’s offices. Take the registered post slip with you. If you have a copy of the letter of demand, take it with you as well.

  5. Now the clerk of the Small Claims Court will help you fill in a summons. A summons tells the other person that he or she must come to court. The clerk of the court will tell you the date and time that you must go to court for the hearing.

  6. The clerk of the court will give you the summons. You must then take the summons to the messenger of the court. You must pay the messenger of the court R8.25 to deliver the summons to the person who owes you the money.

WHAT HAPPENS IN COURT


A Commissioner will hear the case. A Commissioner is a lawyer with at least seven years experience. They are not paid to work in the Small Claims Court. Learn and Teach spoke to a Commissioner. He told us what happens in court and gave us a few tips:

  1. When the Commissioner asks you about your complaint, make your story as short and as simple as you can. The Commissioner wants to know what you are claiming from the other person. Tell him in your own words why you think the other person should pay you the money that you have claimed.

  2. If the Commissioner asks you questions, give a direct and simple answer. Do not think that the Commissioner is being difficult if he asks you questions. He is asking questions that will help him understand the case.

  3. Remember, the Commissioner does not know you or the other person, so it is not easy for him to decide who is telling the truth. You can help him to see that you are truthful by showing him any papers or documents that prove what you say – for example, a receipt which shows how much you paid for something. You can also bring witnesses to the court with you. A witness is somebody who was there when the trouble started between you and the other person.

  4. You can ask for an interpreter at the court if you want to speak in your own language rather than in English or Afrikaans,

  5. When the Commissioner has heard both sides of the story, he will decide on the fairest way to settle the dispute between you and the other person. In most cases he will give his decision there and then. Otherwise, he will send you a letter to tell you what he has decided.

  6. If the Commissioner orders the other person to pay you, that person must pay you as soon as possible. If you still do not get your money, you must go to the clerk of the court again. The court will then issue a warrant of execution against the person. That means the sheriff of the court can go and take away something that belongs to that person and sell it at a public auction. You will then get your money.

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