On 1 April the maximum claim that can be instituted in the Small Claims Court will jump by a third, to R20,000.
Justice minister Michael Masutha gazetted the new limit this week, updating the crucial ceiling that keeps the Small Claims Court small for the first time since 2014.
Such increases are rare despite the steady march of inflation; the maximum claim remained capped at R7,000 for more than half a decade before being increased to R12,000 in 2010, and then set at R15,000 in April of 2014.
As of November 2018 the justice department lists 414 established Small Claims Courts throughout the country in towns ranging from Aberdeen to Zwelitsha, up from 365 locations in 2015.
The courts are engineered to be cheap and accessible. Legal representation is not allowed in Small Claims Courts; each party, whether individual or company, must represent itself. In theory – if not always in practise – court proceedings may be conducted in any of South Africa’s official languages.
The system is popular for small disputes around rent and other contracts, and for the settlement of disputes around damages between the likes of neighbours. It is also on occasion used to claim back money lost to alleged Ponzi schemes, and in battles with cellphone companies.
Claims against municipalities and state organs are specifically excluded, as are claims relating to marriages or wills. Beyond that, however, pretty much any claim between two parties can be lodged by simply sending a letter-of-demand form, waiting 14 days for a response, and then going in person to a court for help in launching proceedings.
Failure to comply with an order in the Small Claims Court can see the matter escalated to the magistrate’s court, which has the power to enforce its orders with the threat of jail time.
There are only two major caveats in using Small Claims Court, the department of justice warns: you need to have paperwork or proof of an agreement – and you need to make sure the other party has the money to pay you if you win.