Artikel 129(1)(a) van die Nasionale Kredietwet 34 van 2005 (hierna Kredietwet) bepaal dat 'n verbruiker skriftelik van sy versuim in kennis gestel moet word alvorens 'n kredietverskaffer verdere stappe kan doen om skuld onder 'n kredietooreenkoms af te dwing. Grootskaalse onduidelikheid en verwarring het geheers oor wat presies voldoening aan hierdie bepaling daarstel. Die meerderheid skrywers was van mening dat versending van die kennisgewing deur die kredietgewer voldoende is, maar die howe het in teenstrydige beslissings getoon dat die aangeleentheid nie so eenvoudig is nie. Die hoogste hof van appèl het uiteindelik regsekerheid bewerkstellig deur in Rossouw v First Rand Bank te beslis dat versending per geregistreerde pos aan 'n verbruiker - wat sodanige metode gekies het as wyse waarop kennisgewings kragtens die Kredietwet aan hom afgelewer moet word - voldoening aan artikel 129(1)(a) daarstel. Die hof beslis verder dat die verbruiker die risiko dra dat die kennisgewing hom moontlik nie sal bereik nie. Hierdie nuutgevonde regsekerheid was egter van korte duur, aangesien die konstitusionele hof in die meerderheidsuitspraak van Sebola v Standard Bank of South Africa Ltd beslis het dat blote versending nievoldoening daarstel nie. Die uitspraak leen hom tot kritiek in vele opsigte, waarvan die sterkste is dat dit teenstrydige stellings bevat en nie duidelik uiteensit wat presies as voldoening gesien kan word nie. Sebola het dus opnuut tot onsekerheid en verwarring gelei, soos duidelik uit twee daaropvolgende uiteenlopende beslissings blyk. In hierdie artikel word die aard, omvang en doel van die artikel 129(1)(a)-kennisgewing ondersoek ten einde te bepaal wat presies voldoening daaraan behels. Die historiese ontwikkeling van kennisgewingsvereistes in verwante en ander relevante wetgewing, asook regspraak kragtens sodanige wetgewing, word oorsigtelik in oorweging geneem. Die aanloop tot die uitspraak in Sebola, die Sebola-beslissing in besonder, asook die twee teenstrydige uitsprake daarna word ondersoek ten einde tot 'n gevolgtrekking aangaande die aard van die vereistes van artikel 129(1)(a)-kennisgewing te kom.
The National Credit Act 34 of 2005 (hereafter Credit Act) created quite a stir on the procedural front in the ambit of debt enforcement due to its maze of interactive procedural requirements to which a credit provider must adhere during the enforcement procedure. Central to the debt enforcement process is the much debated section 129(1)(a)notice, the “gateway” to the debt enforcement procedure. Section 129(1)(a) constitutes the introduction to Part C of Chapter 6 of the Credit Act that deals with “Debt enforcement by repossession or judgment” and provides as follows:
129. Required procedures before debt enforcement
1. If the consumer is in default under a credit agreement, the credit provider – a. may draw the default to the notice of the consumer in writing and propose that the consumer refer the credit agreement to a debt counsellor, alternative dispute resolution agent, consumer court or ombud with jurisdiction, with the intent that the parties resolve any dispute under the agreement or develop and agree on a plan to bring the payment up to date.
A specific aspect of the section 129(1)(a)notice that gave rise to much confusion due to diverging judgments is the question whether the notice is effective and constitutes compliance with the Credit Act only once the consumer has received the notice. After the judgment of the supreme court of appeal in Rossouw v First Rand Bank it seemed that the issue had been laid to rest. The court decided that the despatching of the notice by registered mail to the consumer – the method chosen by the consumer as the manner in which notices under the Credit Act must be delivered to such a consumer – constitutes compliance with section 129(1)(a) of the act. The court also held that the consumer carries the risk of non-receipt of the notice due to the fact that the consumer is allowed to elect the method of delivery. This newly found legal certainty was short-lived as the constitutional court in the majority judgment in Sebola v Standard Bank of South Africa Ltd attached a new interpretation to the section 129(1)(a)notice requirement. The fact that the decision of the constitutional court did not place the proverbial lid on the notice requirement in terms of the Credit Act became rapidly clear when divisions of the high court thereafter gave contradictory judgments on the effect of the Sebola judgment on the notice requirement in terms of section 129(1)(a).
This article investigates the nature, scope and purpose of the section 129(1)(a)notice in order to answer the question as to what exactly will constitute compliance with the notice requirement in terms of said section. We refer briefly to the historical development of the notice requirement in related and other relevant legislation as well as leading judgments before Sebola that considered the section 129(1)(a)notice requirement. Thereafter the judgment of the constitutional court in Sebola as well as specific contradictory statements made in the judgment are set out and analysed in order to come to a conclusion on the correctness of the Sebola judgment.
The following conclusions were reached. In our opinion the constitutional court, in an attempt to provide a purposive interpretation for the notice requirement in section 129(1)(a) of the Credit Act, went too far and arbitrarily expanded the credit provider’s burden of proof. On face value (via paragraph 77 of the judgment) the court created the opportunity for consumers to avoid receipt of the section 129(1)(a)notice and as a result also the enforcement of the credit agreement. The fact that the Sebola judgment did not contribute to legal certainty becomes clear if the diverging subsequent high court decisions in Nedbank Ltd v Anelene Binneman and Absa Bank Ltd v Mkhize are considered.
The constitutional court came to the conclusion, inter alia, that registered mail is more reliable than ordinary mail and the contradictory conclusion of the court in the Mkhize matter, that ordinary mail is more reliable than registered mail - as a large percentage registered mail is returned undelivered – supports our opinion that the postal service is, in general, a reliable despatching system. Ordinary consumers generally receive their mail and do not complain that 70% of ordinary mail does not reach them. In our opinion, the main reason for the high percentage in undelivered registered mail can be attributed to an avoidance tactic used by consumers rather than to an unreliable postal service.
The Credit Act is not an example of breath-taking statutory drafting ingenuity. Precisely in the context of the notice requirement in section 129(1)(a) the court in Starita v Absa Bank remarked: “The fact is that it is a badly drafted Act … A perusal of the Act further show that the expressions ‘giving written notice’, ‘advise in writing’, ‘give notice’, ‘deliver’ and ‘serve’” are used indiscriminately and without precision. Accordingly, undue emphasis should not be placed on the actual words used.”
The approach to the notice requirement as proposed by Otto and followed in Rossouw is to be preferred as it constitutes a reasonable rule of evidence that sets an objective cut- off point for all methods that the Credit Act envisages for delivery of the section 129(1)(a) notice as far as proof is concerned. This approach contributes to legal certainty and avoids difficulty pertaining to proof. To add arbitrary layers of proof to a credit provider’s duty to provide notice unnecessarily complicates the interpretation of the Credit Act, contrary to the objective of a balanced and accessible credit market.