From the Courts: Municipal Law

“There is no debt with so much prejudice put off as that of justice.” – Plutarch (46 – 120 AD)

Before the adoption of the interim Constitution, rural landowners were not required to pay municipal rates, as rural properties did not fall within the area of jurisdiction of municipalities. this position changed with the transition to democracy and the introduction of ‘wall-to-wall’ municipalities. t

The Bergrivier Municipality levied charges against rural landowners within their municipal area from December 2000. The rural landowners refused to pay certain of the rates and levies imposed, but did not approach a court to adjudicate their dispute.

The Municipality sued the rural landowners for payment and the matter eventually reached the Constitutional Court. the defences raised by the rural landowners were of a technical nature and were dismissed by the Constitutional Court. the court found that municipal rates and levies imposed on rural landowners by the Bergrivier Municipality had been validly charged.

The court took the opportunity to note that municipalities have the power to raise revenue in order to finance the performance of municipal functions – including the provision of sustainable services and meeting the basic needs of a community. Municipalities have a constitutional right and duty to raise revenue (by imposing rates and service charges, amongst other things) in order to provide these services. the members of the community have a reciprocal right to access municipal services and a reciprocal duty to pay rates and service charges.

The Bergrivier Municipality had suffered a significant reduction in income as a result of the unlawful conduct of the rural landowners. this resulted in the municipality being unable to effectively meet its constitutional obligations to the rest of the local community. In fact, there had been no contention by the rural landowners that the Municipality failed to comply with its obligation to provide services – services from which the rural landowners had benefited.

The court noted that, even in cases where communities have genuine grievances with municipalities, they cannot take the law into their own hands by withholding payment of rates and service charges. this kind of conduct can result in chaos and lawlessness; circumstances in which local government cannot function efficiently and effectively. It is not for disgruntled individuals to decide what the appropriate relief should be and to attempt to ‘punish’ local government by withholding payments due. That is the prerogative of the courts.

Jacobus Johannes Liebenberg N.O. and 84 Others v. Bergrivier Municipality (Minister for Local Government and Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, Western Cape Intervening), CCT 104/12 {2013} ZACC 16.

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