Sunday, 21 December 2014

Let us sue for our money rights

(First Published in New Era Newspaper - 25 June 2014)

Imagine your brother loses his job. He is a family man with two children and is now in need of a place to stay. You have a one-bedroomed flat at the back of your house that you normally rent out for N$ 2,000.00 a month. At the time he loses his job, you have no renters so you decide to give your brother and his family the chance to stay there. In addition, your brother and you agree that you will help him until such time as he gets another job and that when he gets a job, he will give you back the money that you have lost as an opportunity cost.

Now, while it is true that you are helping your brother, you are also having an “opportunity cost”.

Opportunity cost is the value of the next best choice that one gives up when making a decision. In basic terms, any decision that involves a choice between two or more opportunities has an opportunity cost. In the case above, the cost of helping your brother is going to mean a loss of N$ 2,000 to your monthly.

After three months, your brother got a job and is able to move back into a new place for him and his family. However, he has now been working for over a year and does not seem intent to repay your three months of “lost rent” amounting to N$ 6,000. What can you possibly do to get your money paid back?

Before we look at the possible solutions to this problem, let us explore another scenario.

You have purchased a second-hand vehicle and as part of the deal you exchanged your old car and paid an additional amount of N$ 20,000. After two months, the car you purchased breaks down and the vehicle is not reparable. You find out after some investigation that the dealer who sold the car to you had bought the car on auction after the car had been declared a write-off by an insurance company. When you speak to the dealer he insists that you took the vehicle “voetstoots” and that he can return your car in exchange for the broken car, BUT, he will keep the deposit of N$ 20,000 as his cost for the transaction. What can you possibly do to get your money paid back?

As can be seen from the two examples, you have done something in good faith, but the other person, either as an individual or a business, has not treated you fairly.
This is not a criminal case, but is referred to as a civil case. According to the dictionary, “A civil case is a lawsuit that usually deals with contracts and/or torts. Torts, generally speaking, are wrongful (negligent) acts that result in damage or injury.”

In the two examples above, the amounts are not over N$ 25,000 and will probably cost you more in lawyer’s fees. You may even end up getting your money but this would be an empty victory as the lawyer’s fees may exceed the amount you receive in compensation.

What we need in Namibia is a small claims court to assist the person on the street to be able to claim money that is too little to involve a lawyer.

A “Small Claims Court” is a court of law where ordinary people can handle their own cases. It is not necessary to have a lawyer (and their costs) as the forms are meant to be a kind of “do-it-yourself” where you fill in the blanks. The court has less formal and less complicated rules and procedures than the Magistrates Court.

I propose a small claims court be established where parties could settle their differences in cases up to the value of N$ 25,000. This can, and should, become part of a Consumer Protection Act.

Milton Louw is the IT Project Coordinator at the Electoral Commission of Namibia. This column is written in his personal capacity as a consumer activist and the views expressed in this column are his own.


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