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Wierda Road West Properties (Pty) Ltd v Sizwentsabulagobodoinc 2017 JDR 1936 (SCA)

15 February 2018

Invalidity of a lease agreement –does the absence of an occupation certificate invalidate a lease agreement?

Wierda Road West Properties (Pty) Ltd (“Wierda”), the appellant, instituted action against the respondent, SizweNtsabulaGobodo Inc (“Sizwe”) for the amount of R 7 867 548.78, in respect of rentals and municipal charges for the lease of its property at 41 West Street, Houghton, Johannesburg (“the property”).

The claim was based on a written lease agreement concluded between the parties on 3 August 2012 for a period of 5 years. The claim was based on the period July 2014 to March 2016, as Wierda had sold and transferred the property in March 2016. Sizwe raised various defences and instituted a counterclaim for an order declaring the lease agreement to be void ab initio.

Sizwe is a merged entity, comprising of Gobodo Incorporated (“Gobodo”) and SizweNtsaluba VSP. Wierda is a property-owning company entirely owned by the shareholders of the erstwhile Gobodo, whose premises at the time had become too small.

Wierda undertook to refurbish the property at Gobodo’s instance to meet its requirements and Gobodo moved in on 1 August 2010. In the course of the refurbishment it was discovered that there were no building plans in respect of the new wing added to the property by the previous owner. Wierda was unable to get building plans from the seller and it instructed its architects to draw plans for the new additions and submit them to the City Council of Johannesburg for approval.

On 1 June 2011 Gobodo merged with Sizwe to form the respondent, which concluded a new lease agreement in respect of the property with Wierda on 3 August 2012 for a period of 5 years.

Wierda got the building plans approved during mid-2015, without the approved plans, Wierda could not obtain an occupancy certificate. This was as a result of section 14(1)(a) of the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act (“the Act”) rendered the granting of an occupancy certificate subject to the requirement, amongst others, that the building concerned was erected in accordance with the approved building plans.

All the shareholders in Gobodo were shareholders of Wierda, and five of them, were appointed as its directors. All the shareholders were aware of the absence of the occupancy certificate, as well as the City Council, as their inspectors conducted an assessment of the property and there was no objection to the occupation.

In June 2014, Sizwe vacated the premises without notice to Wierda. On 25 September 2014, after Sizwe vacated the property, Sizwe sent a letter to Wierda stating that the reason for vacating the property was due to the absence of the occupancy certificate, and therefore the lease agreement was invalid.

The high court found that the lease agreement was valid but unenforceable, as a result of the contravention of section 4(1) of the Act (lack of approved building plans for the leased property) and section 14(1) of the Act (the lack of the occupancy certificate for the leased property). Wierda appealed the decision.

The issues in the appeal were the following:

  1. whether the agreement is void ab initio due to the contraventions of section 4(1), read with 4(4), or section 14(1), read with section 14(4) of the Act;
  2. whether the failure to obtain an occupancy certificate rendered the property not suitable for the purposes for which it was let; and
  3. in respect of the cross-appeal, whether the high court erred in its finding that the agreement was not invalid, but merely unenforceable.

The relevant sections from the Act are as follows:

Section 14(1)(a):

(1) A local authority shall within 14 days after the owner of a building of which the erection has been completed, or any person having an interest therein, has requested it in writing to issue a certificate of occupancy in respect of such building –

  1. Issue such certificate of occupancy if it is of the opinion that such building has been erected in accordance with provisions of this Act and the conditions on which approval was granted in terms of section 7…”

Section 4(1):

(1) No person shall without the prior approval in writing of the local authority in question erect any building in respect of which plans, and specifications are to be drawn and submitted in terms of this Act”.

Section 4(4):

Any person erecting any building in contravention of the provisions of subsection (1) shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding R100 for each day on which he was engaged in so erecting such building”.

Section 14(4)(a):

The owner of any building, or any person having an interest therein, erected or being erected with the approval of a local authority, who occupies or uses such building or permits the occupation or use of such building-

  1. Unless a certificate of occupancy has been issued in terms of subsection (1)(a) in respect of such building;

Shall be guilty of an offence.”

The SCA held the following:

  • Non-compliance with section 4(1) and 14(1) of the Act does not render the parties’ lease agreement void and unenforceable as there is no basis to justify reading an implied meaning into section 4(1) that the use or occupancy of a building which has no approved plans is prohibited.
  • Sizwe was fully aware of the lack of the occupancy certificate and had consented to the use and occupation under the circumstances. Therefore, Sizwe had received exactly what it had bargained for, which was office accommodation refurbished to its needs, in a building with an outstanding occupancy certificate which, to its knowledge, the owner (Wierda) was in the process of obtaining. Sizwe never complained of this alleged unfitness for letting, and only did so after it had vacated the property and to avoid the consequences of being held to a contract it had freely entered into.
  • The appeal was upheld with costs and the cross-appeal was dismissed with costs.