Absa gets snot-klapped in Pretoria High Court by women's army
Absa's troubles in its mortgage division just got a whole lot worse. Barely two months after losing two similar cases in the South Gauteng High Court, Absa folded before throwing a punch in the Pretoria High Court against two sisters who made startling allegations of fraud and misconduct against the bank.
Absa’s troubles with its mortgage division have just got a whole lot worse. On Friday two Johannesburg sisters, Emmarentia and Monica Liebenberg, travelled to the North Gauteng High Court with several angry Absa clients in support to defend an attempt by the bank to obtain summary judgment against them for allegedly defaulting on a mortgage loan taken out in 2007.
This should have been a cut and dried case for Absa, just another run-of-the-mill summary judgment like the thousands of others it gets awarded by the courts each year.
Then the bank ran into the Liebenberg sisters, represented by Senior Advocate Christian Harms. The case was similar in many aspects to the case we reported on in August, when Absa attempted to obtain summary judgment against James Grobbelaar and Kevin Jenzen on the grounds that they had allegedly defaulted on their mortgage loans. When asked to provide evidence of the loan agreements, Absa produced blank loan agreements – not the ones signed by the defendants – claiming the originals were destroyed in a fire. Like Grobbelaar and Jenzen, the Liebenbergs argue that these were definitely not the agreements they had signed. (Judge Roland Sutherland dismissed Absa’s case in the South Gauteng High Court two months ago and referred the matter to trial, basing his decision on the disputes of fact and disputed terms contained in the so-called agreements. He further stated that the evidence has to be tested at trial and refused the bank's attempts to pursue summary judgment).
Absa folds before throwing a punch
This time, facing the two Liebenberg sisters, Absa folded before throwing a punch. “Do you really want to fight this?” Adv Harms asked of the bank’s counsel, who promptly packed up his papers and abandoned the fight.
The case was over before it started. Just a few days previously, Absa’s attorneys dismissed the sisters’ heads of argument and 130-page affidavit as “gibberish.” The bank will rue its arrogance, because now the matter must go to trial (if the bank doesn’t settle before then) and the sisters will get to question Absa staff on how they managed to swear under oath on three different occasions – presenting multiple different and unsigned mortgage loan agreements before the court – that each was the correct one. They will also get to question the bank on the legality of the alleged bond agreement which, they argue in their affidavit before the court, is fraught with numerous frauds and violations of the law.
The courts have tended to rubber-stamp these summary judgment applications from the banks, leading some legal experts to question whether South African courts are not just extensions of the banks
One wonders how the banks have been able to get away with this sort of nonsense for so long. The courts have tended to rubber-stamp these summary judgment applications from the banks, leading some legal experts to question whether South African courts are not just extensions of the banks. A summary judgment is one where there is supposedly no dispute of fact, and for this very reason is considered an extreme measure, not one to be lightly entertained by the courts. The very concept of fair justice demands that defendants be allowed to argue the charges brought against them. Yet hundreds, if not thousands, of such judgments are made by the courts each month, usually on behalf of the banks. Bank customers seldom question the bank’s accounting or the legality of their documents. That seems to be changing.
As one observer commented afterwards: “After this case, the gates of hell have just opened for Absa and the banks. The courts have been letting them get away with fraud and deception for so long, because they do not bother to look at the contracts that customers are being forced to sign.”
“Absa had tried to bully us into submission, by threatening legal costs and expenses and by pursuing a wrongful summary judgment application knowing full well the massive disputes involved. They wanted us to back off this case no matter what and even tried to strong-arm us but we refused and I believe they got the message now. We will see them at trial," say the sisters.
After this case, the gates of hell have just opened for Absa and the banks. The courts have been letting them get away with fraud and deception for so long, because they do not bother to look at the contracts that customers are being forced to sign
In cases such as these, Absa typically relies on a so-called standard agreement, not the one signed by the customer, because it claims the originals were destroyed in a fire. Several Absa customers have attempted to investigate this fire, only to be brushed off with a press release (which the courts have unquestioningly accepted as evidence). Even if the hard copy originals were destroyed in a fire, the law requires banks to keep electronic copies. But even these are not available when requested because, some believe, the mortgage loans have been securitised (in other words, sold on to new owners). Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, just that you have to get the consent of the borrower. Hence the secrecy.
Here’s another aspect of the Liebenberg case that does not bode well for Absa: the sisters admit that they fell into arrears on their bond repayments, but when originally summonsed by the bank they offered to settle the R180,000 arrears claimed by the bank in full provided Absa withdrew the summons. No chance. Absa wanted the full amount outstanding of R661,000. What actually happened is that the sisters were paying what they thought was the required monthly repayment, but because the bank stopped sending monthly statements, they inadvertently fell into arrears, not realising that the monthly repayment amount had increased.
This looks like an innocent enough mistake, but Absa did what the banking manual says to do – call in the legal department. Then came the summons.
Bring in the legal team
What on earth was the bank thinking? The Liebenberg sisters decided at this point they better start putting up a more robust defense against the bank, which by now they reckoned to be beyond reason or compromise. Then they started to investigate the outstanding amount claimed by the bank. What they found shocked them: according to their affidavit, the bank not only inflated the interest rate, it also loaded additional charges and fees to which they had never agreed (and which are disallowed by law). In most of these cases, the bank gets some clerk to pull up a computer record as evidence of the amount outstanding and then attest by way of a sworn certificate of balance that this is the amount outstanding. South Africans are beginning to wake up to this by doing their own calculations, and the discrepancies can run into hundreds of thousands of rands. In some cases, the discrepancies are so large, customers are claiming the banks owe them (as in Damon Greville’s case against Sasfin).
There is another little legal technicality you may not know about, known as the “acceleration” clause. This allows the bank to claim the full amount outstanding in the event of a default. Just about every bond agreement has this clause. The problem is that this clause should be legally unenforceable because it relies on another document, the original loan agreement, which usually does not have this clause (again, that violates Section 90 of the National Credit Act). The sisters argued that Absa was only entitled to claim the arrears, and not the full amount of the loan. “We wonder how many thousands of people have lost their houses not knowing these legal technicalities,” says one obersver.
Still to be tested in the courts is how these acceleration clauses stand up to Constitutional scrutiny, specifically Section 25 and 26 which protect property rights, bearing in mind that it is an actuarial certainty that borrowers will run into some financial difficulty at some point during the 20 year life of a mortgage bond. Should people be stripped of their primary asset – their home – after a single default? The Constitutional Court will likely get to decide this in the very near future.
Another point to bear in mind: nearly one in two South Africans have a bad credit rating. At 10% or 15% bad credit rating, one could argue that is the fault of the borrowers. At close to 50%, it is without doubt the fault of the banks (just look at African Bank, now under curatorship, extending new loans to pay old loans). The law has a term for this: reckless lending.