+27 11 648 9500   +27 87 183 1933

The builder and the lien

25 July 2017

A lien is the right of X to retain possession of Y’s property, either movable or immovable. This right arises when X spends money or incurs costs with respect to this property, and comes to an end when the money or cost is reimbursed to X.

Liens may be divided into two general categories:

  1. Enrichment liens; and
  2. Debtor and creditor liens.

An enrichment lien arises when X spends money or incurs cost in preserving or improving the property, in order to maintain or enhance its market value. Y, as the owner of the property, is enriched by X’s actions. An example of this would be repairing a damaged water pipe or upgrading the external facade of an old building.

A debtor and creditor lien arises when X spends money or incurs cost that neither preserves nor improves the property. Y is not enriched by X’s actions and the only way in which X can claim reimbursement is if there is a contractual agreement in terms of which Y agrees to reimburse X for such expenditure. An example would be where a builder incurs expense in mobilising its resources to site, but the contract is terminated before any work can commence.

The main difference between the two types of lien, is that when X has an enrichment lien, the right to retain possession of Y’s property is enforceable against the whole world. An example would be where Y bought property off-plan from a developer, who, in turn, contracted with X to build a house on the property. In building the house, X enhanced the market value of the property. If the developer doesn’t pay X for the cost of building the house, X can hold an enrichment lien over the property, regardless of the fact that Y didn’t actually contract with X.

On the other hand, when X has a debtor and creditor lien, the right to retain possession of the property is only enforceable where Y, as owner of the property, contracted with X for the expenditure. In combining the two examples given above, this would mean that X could not hold a lien over Y’s property, for the cost of mobilisation alone, where X had contracted with the developer and not Y.

When considering holding a lien over Y’s property, X must, therefore, consider:

  1. Whether there is a contract between X and Y? and
  2. If not, whether Y has been enriched at X’s expense?

If the answer to both questions is “no”, then X has no right to retain possession of Y’s property.

If X does have a right to retain possession of Y’s property, then s/he must perfect his/her lien. This means that X must take some special step to show the world that s/he is holding a lien over the property. In the case of a construction site, this would require evidencing possession of the site. For example, this could be done by stationing a representative, in charge, on the site, securing it, putting up signage and generally making it clear that X is in physical control of the site.

If X gives up possession of the site, the lien will fall away. If Y takes back possession of the site by force, X can make application to the courts for a spoliation order, returning possession to him/her.

Y can offer security for the sum claimed by X, pending resolution of any dispute over the matter, in exchange for the return of possession of the site. If X refuses to accept such security, the courts have a discretion, upon application by Y, to order return of possession of the site to Y, in exchange for such security.

The situation is more complicated where public property is concerned as, although it has not definitively been decided, there is some authority for the proposition that a lien cannot be held over public property. [See Loots, Construction Law and Related Issues, 1995, pages 422 – 426]

A wavier is the voluntary giving up of a right. X may waive his/her lien. Certain construction contracts may, in fact, include a clause expressly agreeing to such waiver [See Clause 3.3 of the JBCC Principal Building Agreement, 5th edition and Clause of the GCC 2010].

The waiver of X’s lien does not, however, have to be express. It could also be tacit, meaning that it is conveyed by X’s actions. These actions would have to show a clear and unambiguous intention not to hold a lien over Y’s property. An example would be where X, as a contractor, removes his/her labour, equipment and materials from the site and returns possession of the property to Y.

Author: Michelle Kerr, Senior Associate.