Monday, 29 January 2007

Sectional Titles - the uppity owner

One problem with sectional titles schemes is that the law is not clear and authoritative when it comes to what the body corporate should or can do with an unco-operative owner. I have a current case where the owner in question is persisting in building a structure on an area abutting on his unit where it is by no means certain that it is for his exclusive use, even though he is the only person that has physical access to the area concerned. To be able to claim the right of exclusive use in any area, the unitholder must either have received it by virtue of a notarial cession or the rules must provide that particular area is for the exclusive use of the unitholder concerned.

The strategy of our uppity unitholder is to quietly and intermittently carry on adding to the unauthorised structure until it slowly becomes a fait accompli, something already done and beyond alteration. Numerous warnings have been issued by the body corporate, but to no avail. What is the remedy of the body corporate, in other words the other owners in the complex ?

One thing one can try is to persuade the building inspector of your local authority to issue a cease and desist order in terms of their bylaws. This will cost the body corporate nothing and should have the desired effect, providing you can get your local authority to co-operate.

Another possibility is to apply for what is called a mandatory interdict that, if granted by the court, will consist of an order that the recalcitrant unitholder not only cease further construction but also dismantle what has already been constructed without due authority. A problem is that one needs to show prejudice and the lack of an alternative remedy in order to succeed in obtaining an interdict of this kind. In certain circumstances this could be difficult for the body corporate to show: the additional construction might be ugly but does it really prejudice anyone ?

The other alternative is to resort to arbitration in terms of Management Rule 71 under the Sectional Titles Act 95 of 1986. This has plusses and minuses. One plus is its relative speed when compared to the courts. One authority [Prof C G v d Merwe, author of Sectional Titles, Butterworths, looseleaf (not the English equivalent of Loslyf), updated to 28 February 2006, p 9-19] maintains that cost-effectiveness is another. I am not so sure about that. The state pays for the judge in the courts – the parties have to pay for the arbitrator in arbitration and this can also be expensive.

The learned author (we lawyers use these old-fashioned courtesies towards each other) also says another plus is that arbitration "offers better safeguards against procedural irregulations [sic – I presume he means 'irregularities'] by virtue of the provisions of the Arbitration Act 42 of 1965, that will apply to any arbitration proceedings in terms of the Sectional Titles Act".

What should also be considered is an amendment to the conduct rules imposing fines on unitholders who break those rules and the power to request an amount as security for future transgressions. This is a speedy and inexpensive remedy but the rule must provide built-in safeguards to ensure that it is not abused, eg an enquiry to establish the breach of the rules before the sanction is imposed.

In any event: a word of advice to potential sectional titles unit buyers – read the "management" and "conduct" rules first. That will tell you what kind of a situation you are moving into.

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