Small Claims Court – a cost and time-effective way to institute a claim for damages after a motor vehicle accident
#roadrules #claimingfordamages #smallclaimscourt #accidents #2018
Philip Swanepoel (BA Law, LLB, LLM)
The Small Claims Court established in terms of the Small Claims Court Act 61 of 1984 provides a time and cost-effective mechanism for people who have a claim of less than R15 000 in value against another1. This mechanism thus holds enormous potential for people whom have suffered damages to their property after minor motor vehicle collisions. This article will, in very brief terms, set out the procedure to be followed when lodging a claim in the Small Claims Court in order to assist readers who might have a relatively small claim against another.
It is important to note that the Small Claims Court has limited jurisdiction (jurisdiction refers to the competency of a specific court to hear a specific matter). For instance, you cannot institute a claim against an organ of state in the Small Claims Court (this includes local government and municipalities). This means that if your motor vehicle got damaged due to the negligent driving of a police vehicle or any municipal vehicle, whilst the driver of the said vehicle was acting within the course and scope of his or her employment, then you will not be able to claim the damages from the government, even if the claim is less than R15 000. It is also important to note that juristic persons such as companies cannot institute legal proceedings in the Small Claims Court, but, proceedings can be instituted against companies in this Court.
Another important aspect of jurisdiction relates to which specific Small Claims Court will be able to hear your case. This is easy when claiming damages which arose from a motor vehicle collision. You can institute proceedings in the Small Claims Court which has jurisdiction over the area in which the collision occurred. This jurisdiction is based on the fact that the whole cause of action arose within the Court's jurisdictional area. It would also be possible to institute proceedings in the Court which has jurisdiction over the area in which the opposing party (also known as the defendant) resides or is employed in.
The process of lodging a claim in the Small Claims Court is fairly easy and simple and should, as most claims in other courts, be proceeded by the delivery of a letter of demand. You should set out all the relevant facts which gives rise to your claim in this letter. These facts are known as the facta probanda. You should also in this letter set out the amount of your claim, which should correspond to the price of fixing the damage to your motor vehicle (this is known as the quantum of your claim).
The opposing party then has 14 days to satisfy your claim, failing which you can approach the clerk of the court. You should then give the clerk proof that the letter of demand was in fact delivered (such as a post office slip), any documentation proving your quantum (such as a quotation from a panel beater), and the full name, address and contact details of the opposing party.
The clerk of the court will hereafter help you to draft a summons which will contain all the particulars of the claim as well as the date and time of the hearing. You will then have to deliver the summons to the opposing party. The hearing will then take place which is much more informal than hearings in the magistrate court or high court. No legal representatives such as attorneys or advocates are allowed which contributes greatly to the cost-effective nature of this mechanism. The judgment given by the commissioner of the Small Claims Court will be final and enforceable and can only be reviewed in limited circumstances.
Lastly, it is important to note that the opposing party is allowed to institute a counter claim during the proceedings if he or she believes that you were in fact the negligent party in the motor vehicle collision, or the opposing party could also offer to settle the claim anytime before the hearing. You should immediately inform the clerk in the latter instance so that he or she knows that the case will no longer be proceeding.
Click here to learn more about the Small Claims Court.
1 Note that you can institute a claim to the value of R15 000 in the Small Claims Court even if the damage to your vehicle exceeds this amount. However, you will then have to abandon the difference in order to bring the claim within the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court and you will never be able to claim the abandoned amount again.