MN v SN (10540-16)  ZAWCHC 157 (13 November 2020)
Court: Western Cape Division, Cape Town
Case No: 10540/16
Date heard: 2 November 2020
Delivered: 13 November 2020
Judge: Rogers, J
Contempt of court – Where the husband breached a rule 43 order – The court recognized that the business that he worked for had experienced financial hardships due to covid – The husband did not earn a salary during some months – Despite the fact that he co-owned a fully paid house with his new partner well worth R3,5 million – It was held that he could not be expected to
force her to agree to sell a portion of the house – It was held that his contempt was not intentional and mala fide.
The wife (applicant) wanted to hold her husband (the respondent) in contempt for violating a rule 43 order that was reached by agreement between the parties. It was common cause that the husband knew about the order and its provisions. The only thing that had to be decided was whether he transgressed the order willfully and with mala fides. If not, then he could not be found in contempt. (See Fakie No v CCII Systems (Pty) Ltd 2006 (4) SA 326 (SCA) para 14.
The matter was enrolled on the urgent court roll. Nevertheless, the parties had it postponed twice by agreement even though it was ready for hearing. The respondent contended that the court ought to strike the matter off the roll for lack of urgency on that basis. The court turned down his arguments. It was held that contempt proceedings are urgent by their nature simply because the vindication of the court’s authority is at stake (See Protea Holdings Ltd v Wriwt & another 1978 (3) SA 865 (W) at 868B-869A).
It was also reasoned that they are especially urgent mainly because it is often women and children who are in the care of the breached orders.
A technical argument for non-compliance with Rule 41A was also raised. This new rule calls for parties to try and mediate before coming court. The court refused the argument considering the legal representatives for the respondent did not persist on mediation throughout the exchange of the various notices. It was argued that there was a verbal agreement in which the parties consented that the husband would temporarily stop paying money for the domestic worker. A recording was made available as evidence, but the court found that the only impression drawn from the recording was that the husband was manipulative. The wife replied to his statements, spontaneously and emotionally.
Counsel for the husband also attempted to bring arguments based on set-off, as the wife owed some money to the husband’s family business. But the court found that an obligation to pay maintenance in respect of a wife and children is not susceptible to set-off (See Tregonong v Tregonong 1914 WLD 93, and Hodges v Coubrough NO 1990 (3) SA 58 (D) at 65A-B). Before concluding, the court observed that the family business encountered some severe financial difficulties due to COVID.
The husband used to own interests in the family business but was compelled to dispose of
them because of extensive borrowings from the company. Recently, there were some months in which he did not get a salary at all, and in other months he received TERS payment of around R6000,00. Even though he co-owned a R3,5 million property that was completely paid with his new partner, the court found it was unrealistic to have expected him to force his partner to agree to sell a portion of the house.
In summary, it was held that the husband could not be found in contempt. The costs of the suit were reserved for determination in the divorce trial.
Bertus Preller is a Family Law and Divorce Law Attorney at Maurice Phillips Wisenberg in Cape Town.