Standard acknowledgements of debt and the National Credit Act (NCA)

The new NCA does not only regulate instalment sale agreements and lease agreements in respect of movables as was done by its predecessor, the repealed Credit Agreements Act 75 of 1980. The NCA also applies to a much wider variety of credit agreements and has no monetary cap. Instead of instituting legal action a creditor often gets a debtor to sign an acknowledgement of debt to facilitate repayment. This document could contain a provision for instalments and interest and fees. The question arises whether this agreement in confirmation of an existing obligation constitutes a credit agreement for purposes of the NCA.

The purpose of this Act is to promote and advance the social and economic welfare of South Africans, promote a fair, transparent, competitive, sustainable, responsible, efficient, effective and accessible credit market and industry, and to protect consumers.

“Credit”, when used as a noun, is defined in the Act as a deferral of payment of money owed to a person or a promise to defer such payment; or a promise to advance or pay money to or at the direction of another person.

“Agreement” includes an arrangement or understanding between or among two or more parties which purports to establish a relationship in law between those parties.

The parties to a credit agreement governed by the NCA are referred to as the “consumer” and the “credit provider” and these definitions should be considered. An acknowledgement of debt normally refers to a historical event of cause and does not constitute a credit guarantee or any of the named credit transactions such as a pawn agreement, discount agreement, incidental credit agreement, instalment agreement, lease, secured loan or mortgage agreement or credit facility. However, the fact that it contains a deferral of payment and requires the payment of interest, fees and other charges, will cause it to fall within the ambit of the catch-all term “credit transaction” provided for in Section 8(4)(f) of the Act.

Section 2(1) provides that the Act must be interpreted in a manner that gives effect to the purposes set out in Section 3. The question really is whether the legislature intended the rearrangement or the repayment terms of an existing debt, for instance where money has already been advanced to a consumer a considerable period of time ago or where damages were suffered as a result of a delict or breach of contract, to constitute a credit agreement or transaction for purposes of the NCA. Due to the elements of deferral and the charging of interest, fees and other charges in a standard acknowledgement of debt, and in the absence of any express or implicit indication to the contrary, it seems an inescapable conclusion that the agreement could be defined as a credit agreement within the meaning of the NCA. The relevance of this is that it might be that the credit provider would be required to register as such with the National Credit Regulator, affordability assessment would have to be done prior to conclusion, the consumer could become overindebted and apply for debt review, and so many onerous requirements will be applicable.

It is submitted that where the cause of action in relation to which the acknowledgement of debt was entered into is based on a contract or agreement which constitutes a credit agreement, the insertion of a no-novation clause into an acknowledgement of debt will not serve to exclude the agreement subsequently concluded, from the ambit of the NCA. However, where the debt initially arose as a result of a delict, the insertion of a no-novation clause might have the effect of preserving the original cause of action, namely the delict, and thus cause the matter to fall outside the scope of the NCA.

One thing to be kept in mind is that a “consumer”, in respect of a credit agreement to which the NCA applies, means

(a) the party to whom goods or services are sold under a discount transaction, incidental credit agreement or instalment agreement;

(b) the party to whom money is paid, or credit granted, under a pawn transaction;

(c) the party to whom credit is granted under a credit facility;

(d) the mortgagor under a mortgage agreement;

(e) the borrower under a secured loan;

(f) the lessee under a lease;

(g) the guarantor under a credit guarantee; or

(h) the party to whom or at whose direction money is advanced or credit granted under any other credit agreement.

This definition might provide the answer as the acknowledgement of debt might, as a different cause of action, not qualify the consumer under the above definition. So, too, is the underlying cause of action to the acknowledgement of debt, and it deserves no debate that signing an acknowledgement of debt is not something to go about without due consideration.

Should a court be convinced that the written acknowledgement of debt is subject to the NCA the court could be required to make a ruling in terms of Section 130(4)(b) of the NCA, which states:

In any proceedings contemplated in this section, if the court determines that – … the credit provider has not complied with the relevant provisions of this Act, as contemplated in subsection (3)(a), or has approached the court in circumstances contemplated in subsection (3)(c) the court must – adjourn the matter before it; and make an appropriate order setting out the steps the credit provider must complete before the matter may be resumed.

In Adams v SA Motor Industry Employers Association 1981 (3) SA 1189 (A) at 1198 – 1199, the court held that there is a presumption against novation and that, where novation was not intended, it was possible for two obligations to co-exist. These obligations would be interdependent, and the creditor does not have a free election to enforce the original obligation. An acknowledgment of debt, sometimes referred to as an IOU, is evidence of a debt which is due, but differs from a promissory note as it does not contain an express promise to pay. However, where the acknowledgment of debt is coupled with an undertaking to pay, it will give rise to an obligation in terms of that undertaking.

The case of Rodel Financial Service (Pty) Ltd v Naidoo and Another 2013 (3) Sa 151 (Kzp), and its annotations is recommended for reading and getting a better understanding of the applicable principles.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your financial adviser for specific and detailed advice. (E&OE).