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Fighting a Landlord

This is a follow-up to my previous two posts here and here. Unfortunately, I'm completely exhausted and worn out, so it may not be as long and complete as I would like.

On Monday morning, I phoned then Rental Housing Tribunal, a government department set up to aid tenants and landlords to settle disputes. I described my situation, and was told that I almost certainly had a case, and that I should go to the tribunal physically and talk to somebody there.

On Tuesday morning, I went there, and explained my entire case again. They were extremely friendly and sympathetic, and they told me that if my landlord had taken away my keys and told me that I could no longer park my car on the property, he was changing the terms of the rental agreement without cause (illegal) and had also performed an illegal lockout (also, yes, illegal). They gave me a form to fill in charging my landlord with illegal lockout, and told me that they would contact me if they needed to know anything else.

On Tuesday afternoon, I received a phone call from the Rental Housing Tribunal telling me that there was a hearing the next day, Wednesday (today) at 10am, and confirming that I could be there. I said I could, and they told me that my landlord would also be there. They were very efficient, and I applaud them.

Today, Wednesday, I went to the Rental Housing Tribunal, getting there about 9am (because I underestimated the traffic), so I sat and waited in the foyer for my hearing at 10am. At about 9:30, my landlord phoned me. At first, I just let it ring, but he phoned back, so eventually I answered it. He said he had received an order to be at the hearing today at 10am on a claim of illegal lockout. I said "okay". He asked me what I had told the people. I refused to talk to him, so he asked if I would talk to the police if he got them to phone me. At this point, I handed him to the person from the Rental Housing Tribunal, who spoke to him at length. Finally, he said that George wasn't going to come to the hearing, because he didn't think I had a case, but that he had persuaded George to come along in the end. So at about 10:20, the hearing began.

I'm too tired to give a detailed description of what happened in the hearing. Suffice to say that George led on a very aggressive note, demanding to know why he was there, and why his time was being wasted, and who said that he had "illegally locked me out", and so on. He also presented me with a letter detailing everything that I owe him, to a total of R24000, although he added that water bills of about R1000 would be added on to that shortly (although no water bills have ever been paid before?).

We eventually got to discussing the rent issue, and Donovan from the tribunal tried to find an amicable solution that would benefit us both. He basically agreed with me completely about the interpretation of the lease, but he did point out that we needed to find a solution amicable to both parties (George and myself). He used the word "remedy" - if I was leaving early, I needed to remedy the loss of income to George. The normal way to do this if you leave early is to find somebody to replace yourself in the house, and Donovan suggested that I do this. I implied that I did not wish to inflict that trial on anybody else, and George spent a good ten minutes telling me that if I impugned his good character again, he would summon the police and have me arrested again.

At this stage, the tribunal members left the room for a few minutes for a discussion, and came back saying that they had re-evaluated the early termination clause and decided that instead of finding a replacement for myself, I could just pay the rent for September (i.e. an extra month's rent), and that would be sufficient. I would still get my deposit back (less damage to the property), so in the end I wouldn't actually pay much extra at all (although I'm sure George would find lots of "damage" to remove from the deposit). They suggested that I make things easier for myself by finding a replacement, but I said that I would much rather pay an extra month's rent than put somebody else in the house. This was amenable to them, and they turned to George, who seemed to think that this solution was perhaps tolerable, but brought up the point that I hadn't yet paid August's rent. I sighed deeply, and once more explained that I had given him an extra month's rent at the beginning of the year, and that this would count for August. The tribunal agreed with me, but George said, no, that money was for March next year, the final month in the lease. Everybody pointed out that the lease was being terminated early, so the new "final month" was August, but George resorted back to the position he had made three or four times already: "It's in the lease, we have to abide by it". No amount of pointing out that the lease meant something else would persuade him. When a member of the tribunal asked him whether I would then lose the rent for March of next year, or whether I should return to live in the house in March of next year, George got very indignant that she used the word 'lose' and mentioned that it was all about the lease. Again.

By this point, the tribunal had realised that nothing was going to be achieved by rational debate, and they decided to move the hearing into court. We adjourned for fifteen minutes, and then went into court. It was a hearing overseen by five members of the Tribunal, and:

"A ruling by the Tribunal is regarded as an order of a Magistrates' Court."

As we were being sworn in, George raised his hand and said he had two questions. The first was that he was an atheist, and so he refused to swear on a Bible. The second was that he didn't understand why he was in court, and requested that he be told what he had done wrong. The clerk read out the charge of "illegal lockout" to him, and George immediately informed the clerk that he had not locked me out illegally. Then he started arguing with the clerk about the complaint, until the clerk shut him up angrily by telling him that he (the clerk) was not the complainant, and had never seen the paper before in his life, and was just reading out what was in front of him.

No, honestly. I'm not making this up. That is exactly how it happened.

After being sworn in, I was asked to give a statement, which I did, explaining about how George demanded rent from me on Sunday, then confiscated my keys, demanded rent again, and then ordered me to remove my car from the property. Some of the Tribunal members had fairly wide eyes at the end of the story, and then they turned to George and asked him what he had to say about this. He said that he had done this, and didn't see what was wrong with it. A Tribunal member asked him why he had told me to remove my car from the property, and his answer was, I quote directly, "Because I told him to". She asked him again, why he had made me move my car, and he once again said "Because I told him to". She told him that this was not a good enough answer. They then asked me how long I had been parking on the property, and how long I had had a buzzer for. I knew that this was in order to determine whether there was an (unwritten) agreement between George and I that I be allowed to park on the property - four months is enough time to indicate that an agreement exists.

They asked George what had changed that made him change the rules for me, and he said that I had given notice, so he had ordered me to remove my car. He got fairly indignant, and said, "Are you telling me that it's illegal for me to ask him to get his car off my property?". There was a slight pause, and the magistrate said "yes". George seemed slightly floored by this, but rallied magnificently, and began to argue with the magistrate about what was and was not illegal. The magistrate did not seem very impressed with George's legal knowledge, and eventually shut George up and told him that he was guilty of illegal lockout.

A brief interlude here: In changing the terms of the agreement and refusing to allow me to park on the property, George violated the law behind the contract - you cannot do this without a court order and a written agreement between the two parties. Furthermore, in denying me access to the property except through a third party (I needed to ring the bell to get in), he performed an illegal lockout, and was in violation of the law.

I seem to have the order of events wrong, but I remember at one stage, George tried to give me a pedestrian key to the gate, but was stopped by a Tribunal member who pointed out that I had had a remote control, not just a key. After some lengthy discussion about this, George returned to the topic by saying that I had refused to accept the key from him earlier in the discussion. Now the court clerk got exasperated and pointed out that I hadn't even touched the key, because the Tribunal member had stopped the key transfer by bringing up the buzzer.

Finally, the magistrate ordered George to give me a gate buzzer, and said that although he had performed an illegal lockout, he was going to put it down to misunderstanding on George's part, and gave him some stern words about taking the law into his own hands. He then declared the court closed.

Now, George spoke up again. He said, "have we settled this matter?" And the magistrate stopped in his tracks, turned back and said yes, we've settled it favourably towards you, in fact, I advise you to leave it there. But George said "What about my rent?". He actually demanded that the magistrate order me to pay him his rent. The magistrate was somewhat dumbfounded and told George that he was wasting taxpayer money trying to jump the queue and trying to force the magistrate to make unilateral rulings on his petty lease disagreements. George said "Oh, you're going to settle his issue, but not mine, that's not fair, why is that?" Then George waved a brochure around and said "I've read your pamphlet here, and it says you are here to settle people's disagreements, why don't you do that?"

I swear I'm not making this up, it's in the minutes of the hearing.

The magistrate basically stared at George and said "Well, to be frank, he was here first. If you want to file a claim, you're welcome to do it. Stop wasting my time now, this hearing is over" and left the room. I followed shortly after, and that was that.

I spoke to Donovan briefly by phone this afternoon. The matter of the illegal lockout has been settled in my favour, and although there has been no settlement in terms of the rent dispute, Donovan says that the law is clearly in my favour. So, I should just wait for George to file his claims against me, and fight them as they come, and I will win. It's such a lus, though. I am so exhausted right now. Ah well.

I'm going to Cape Agulhas tomorrow, until Sunday, and when I come back, we'll see what happens. Thanks to everybody for the words of support and offers of aid and accommodation. More updates as events warrant!