Landlords: You Cannot Cut a Defaulting Tenant’s Water and Electricity
'A fundamental principle in issue here is that nobody may take the law into their own hands. In order to preserve order and peace in society the court will summarily grant an order for restoration of the status quo where such deprivation has occurred and it will do so without going into the merits of the dispute.' (Excerpt from judgment below)
Many a landlord is tempted to go the 'self-help' route when non-paying tenants refuse to pay up and also refuse to leave. Holding costs mount with not a cent in rental income to show for it, the landlord gets desperate and locks are changed, access codes blocked, electricity and water cut off.
But what if, instead of meekly packing up and vacating, the tenant rushes off to court? As we shall see from our discussion of a recent High Court decision below, now the landlord has a real problem, regardless of whether or not the tenant has lost its legal right of occupation.
You cannot take the law into your own hands
A tenant under a verbal lease dating back some 27 years and in terms of which the rental included payment for water and electricity, stopped paying rental in January 2021.
The landlord, citing both failure to pay rental and allegations of unlawful sub-letting and overcrowding, gave the tenant notice of eviction. The tenant refused to vacate and had her attorney warn the landlord against evicting or cutting services without a court order.
When the landlord nevertheless went ahead and cut the electricity and water supplies, claiming this to be a lawful attempt to reduce its losses since the (unpaid) rental included the supply of electricity and water, the tenant asked the High Court to (among other things) grant it a 'spoliation order' (an order giving possession back to someone deprived of it without due legal process) restoring services immediately to the premises.
The case didn’t go well for the landlord and it is now back to square one after eighteen months of no rental income, with the added costs of two sets of legal bills to pay. Landlords, said the Court, must pursue the remedies at their disposal to enforce payment of rental in accordance with the law. 'Landlords are not entitled to take the law into their own hands.'
A vitally important factor to bear in mind here is that at this stage of proceedings a court will not enquire into whether or not the tenant has a legal right to be in possession: 'Irrespective of the lawfulness or otherwise of the occupation, a landlord may not disconnect water and electricity without the intervention of a court.' (Emphasis supplied).
Relevant to the Court’s decision was the fact that on the facts of this case, supply of services was not a 'personal right' between the parties but part of the tenant’s possession of the property: 'To my mind, the supply of electricity and water is not merely contractual but an incident of the possession of the property.' That can be a fine distinction so specific legal advice is essential if you are a landlord (or a tenant) embroiled in a dispute of this nature.
The end result – the landlord was ordered to restore electricity and water immediately to the tenant and must pay the tenant’s legal costs.
Lessons for landlords
You are playing with fire if you take matters into your own hands when dealing with problematic tenants. No matter how intransigent they may be and no matter how unlawful their occupation, the only safe route is to follow the appropriate legal channels with specific legal advice and assistance:
All a tenant needs to prove to get a spoliation order against you (with costs) is that they were in 'peaceful and undisturbed' possession and that you unlawfully deprived them of that possession. Nothing more.
And that’s by no means your only risk - you could also be charged criminally in terms of the Rental Housing Act, which provides that anyone who 'unlawfully locks out a tenant or shuts off the utilities to the rental housing property' faces a fine and/or two years’ imprisonment.
Secondly, it is clear that one of the landlord’s practical problems in this matter was the fact that (amazingly after 27 years) it had no written lease in place. That made it difficult to prove the terms of the lease, the parties’ rights and duties, duration, grounds for termination and notice periods. Although a verbal lease is valid in law (for now anyway; change is in the wind on that one), a properly drawn written lease is vital to protect your rights!