Which road to choose? Action or Application

May 1st, 2013
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By Vuyo Mkwibiso

Attorneys are often faced with the difficult choice of whether to institute legal proceedings by application on notice of motion supported by affidavits, or by summons initiating action or trial proceedings.

The differences between application and action proceedings are well known and will not be elaborated on in this article. The most salient distinction is that action proceedings envisage the presentation of facts and evidence verbally in court during a trial, whereas application proceedings envisage the presentation of facts and evidence in affidavits that will be read by a judge before hearing arguments in court on the issues raised in the affidavits.

Application proceedings are usually heard in court shortly after their initiation, whereas action proceedings may be heard several years after their initiation. Application proceedings are usually disposed of more expeditiously than action proceedings. As a result, application proceedings are generally cheaper and lead to a relatively speedy resolution of disputes compared to action proceedings.

Material disputes of fact – options

Application proceedings are not recommended where a litigant foresees that his opponent will raise material disputes of fact in an answering affidavit in response to his founding affidavit. If a material dispute of fact arises when comparing the founding and answering affidavits, the judge hearing the application will be faced with the following choices (see r 6(5)(g) of the Uniform Rules of Court for the High Court), which must be made in a judicious manner:

  • Dismiss the application if the litigant who initiated the proceedings foresaw or ought reasonably to have foreseen, before initiating the proceedings, that a dispute of fact would arise.
  • Refer the material dispute of fact to oral testimony if it can be disposed of easily and speedily without affecting any other issues in the case.
  • Refer the entire matter for trial and order that the notice of motion stand as a simple summons, that the founding affidavit stand as the plaintiff’s declaration, that the answering affidavit stand as the defendant’s plea, and make any other order relating to the conduct of the proceedings as a trial.

Legal practitioners usually have to weigh the risk of having a client’s case dismissed because a material dispute of fact was reasonably foreseeable, on the one hand, and obtaining speedy relief for the client by choosing application proceedings over action proceedings, on the other.

Where application proceedings are initiated, it seems that some respondents choose (presumably on legal advice) not to deal with the merits of the application but merely request the judge hearing the matter to dismiss the application on the ground that the dispute should have been referred to court by way of action proceedings, for one or another technical reason. As will be seen from the cases analysed below, the courts will usually interrogate the alleged dispute of fact to determine whether it meets the test for the existence of a material dispute of fact.

Relevant case law

As far back as 1949, in Room Hire Co (Pty) Ltd v Jeppe Street Mansions (Pty) Ltd 1949 (3) SA 1155 (T), the courts have held that the crucial question is whether there is a real dispute of fact. The principal ways in which disputes of fact arise are when –

  • the respondent denies material allegations made in the applicant’s founding affidavit and further produces positive evidence to the contrary in the answering affidavit;
  • the respondent admits the facts and evidence in the applicant’s founding affidavit, but alleges additional facts and evidence that the applicant disputes;
  • the respondent alleges that he has no knowledge of the facts deposed to in the founding affidavit and puts the applicant to the proof of those facts; and
  • the respondent states that he can lead no evidence to dispute the truth of the applicant’s statements but puts the applicant to the proof thereof by oral evidence subject to cross-examination.

In Wightman t/a JW Construction v Headfour (Pty) Ltd and Another 2008 (3) SA 371 (SCA) the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) held at para 13: ‘A real, genuine and bona fide dispute of fact can exist only where the court is satisfied that the party who purports to raise the dispute has in his affidavit seriously and unambiguously addressed the fact said to be disputed.’

The SCA held that bare denials are not acceptable where the facts deposed to lie purely in the knowledge of the litigant deposing to the answering affidavit. Further, the SCA held that where an applicant sets out chapter and verse in his founding affidavit, ‘[e]ach material averment must be met and answered appropriately not enveloped in a fog which hides or distorts the reality’. The SCA overturned two decisions of the High Court in the matter and granted the order sought by application proceedings on the ground that the respondent had not raised real disputes of fact.

Recently, in Naidoo and Another v Sunker and Another (SCA) (unreported case no 126/11, 29-11-2011) (Heher JA), the SCA again had to address the issue whether a real, genuine or bona fide dispute of fact had been raised in application proceedings. The owners of certain premises in KwaZulu-Natal had initially issued summons in the magistrate’s court against the tenants in an action in which they claimed, and were ultimately awarded, damages for unlawful occupation. The owners subsequently approached the High Court by way of application proceedings for an order evicting the tenants. The tenants opposed the application but failed to raise disputes of fact.

The SCA rejected the tenants’ argument that, because certain defences had been raised in other courts, those defences should have been considered by the court hearing the application even though they had not been pertinently raised in the answering affidavit. The SCA also rejected the tenants’ argument that the High Court should have given them the opportunity to cross-examine the owners in order to establish certain facts. The court held that the tenants had not set out the import of the evidence they sought to elicit by way of cross-examination, they did not explain why that evidence was not otherwise available, and they had failed to satisfy the court that there were reasonable grounds to believe that the evidence in question would be elicited through cross-examination. As a result, the SCA confirmed the High Court’s order granting eviction.

In SA Football Association v Mangope (2013) 34 ILJ 311 (LAC) the South African Football Association dismissed an employee for poor work performance four months after he was employed on a three-year contract as a senior official reporting to the chief executive officer. The employee approached the Labour Court by way of application proceedings, claiming damages for unlawful termination of the employment contract. Although the employee’s founding affidavit was detailed about the manner in which his services had been adequate, the employer’s answering affidavit did not deny material allegations, was deposed to by someone who did not have personal knowledge of the facts, was not accompanied by confirmatory affidavits from those who had personal knowledge, and was held to be vague and general. The employer’s answering affidavit specifically stated that the employee’s allegations would not be dealt with in any detail, since the employee ought to have brought the proceedings as trial or action proceedings as a result of reasonably foreseeable disputes of fact.

The Labour Appeal Court found that a dispute of fact will be held to exist on the basis of what is alleged in the answering affidavit in comparison to the founding affidavit. The court further held that allegations that were not denied would be regarded as having been admitted. The court was of the view that the employer had been incorrectly advised that any claim for legal damages for breach of contract should be initiated by way of action proceedings. According to the court, this was not a basis for refusing to fully deal with the merits of the employee’s claim.

Conclusion

From the cases referred to above, it is clear that failing to deal with the merits of an applicant’s claim in application proceedings based on some technical ground may have drastic consequences as a respondent may suffer an adverse order being granted without having fully exercised his right to be heard.

Legal practitioners are urged to familiarise themselves with the applicable principles regarding disputes of fact before advising their clients on how to oppose legal proceedings brought as applications supported by affidavits.

In summary, only real, genuine or bona fide disputes of fact will be entertained by the courts before a decision is made to dismiss an application or refer it to trial or for oral evidence on a limited issue. Bare denials are not sufficient to establish disputes of fact, unless the facts in question are peculiarly in the knowledge of the applicant and the respondent has no knowledge of those facts.

In order for a litigant to argue that disputes of fact were reasonably foreseeable, those disputes must be set out in the answering affidavit, which must set out the basis on which it is alleged that the disputes were reasonably foreseeable. The existence of letters and e-mails or other court proceedings based on similar facts between the same parties, in which the alleged disputes of fact were raised, will be insufficient.

Vuyo Mkwibiso LLB (National University of Lesotho) LLM (UKZN) is an attorney at Cox Yeats Attorneys in Durban.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2013 (May) DR 38.

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