R12 billion for court cases

Government, specifically the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR), is spending more and more of taxpayers’ money to defend their actions, as farmers are increasingly turning to the legal system to enforce their rights.

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The DRDLR’s commitments to buy gazetted land, compensate beneficiaries and pay developmental grants amount to about R7,5 billion. But this figure is now R12 billion with court orders insisting the state honour its sales agreements. The Standing Committee on Appropriations recently expressed its displeasure that the DRDLR was spending large sums on court cases. In its report on 2009/10 fourth quarter expenditure, the committee said the costs could put a future burden on the Treasury.

“The department should endeavour to settle disputes with landowners, rather than revert to the courts and legal action,” advised the committee. It ordered the DRDLR to disclose its budget for legal costs for the 2009/10 financial year, and to submit a detailed report listing all litigation brought against it and associated costs to parliament within three months.

“Following the precedence set through court decisions, more landowners are taking the department to court,” the committee noted. “The minister had instructed the department to settle all court orders and it was reported that about R700 million had been paid. The outstanding orders were with the Deeds Office and would be paid once registered.”Agri SA parliamentary representative Annelize Crosby said a large number of cases were still on the way to court.

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“Even if an owner wins a case – and it sounds like most cases are decided in favour of the landowner – and they get a cost order, there will still be substantial legal fees the owner will have to pay from his own pocket,” she said. “It’s costing the landowner money to get things enforced. If you enter into an agreement with your government, you should be able to rest assured that agreements will be honoured.

The only light is that they at least seem to be trying to honour the court orders.” Agri SA executive director Hans van der Merwe said in the case of land restitution, the landowner basically had no rights. “Government assesses if it’s a legitimate case,” he explained. “If the landowner disputes it, he has to do so out of his own pocket, while claimants fight using state resources.”