INTRODUCTION & BACKGROUND
This matter dealt with the interpretation of section 23(3) of the Road Accident Fund Act 56 of 1996 (“the RAF Act”), particularly, the manner in which the five-year prescription period applicable to the Respondent’s claim should be calculated.
On 17 June 2009, the Respondent, and her minor child where hit by a motor vehicle. As a consequence of the driver’s negligence she and her minor child suffered severe bodily injuries. On 17 June 2014, the Respondent instituted an action against the Road Accident Fund (“the Appellant”) in the Gauteng Local Division of the High Court (“the High Court”) for compensation arising out of the accident in terms of s 17(1) of the RAF Act. The last day of the five-year period, in terms of s 23(3) of the RAF Act, fell on Monday, 16 June 2014, a public holiday, and so the court was closed. Initially the Appellant filed a plea to the Respondent’s particulars of claim. Subsequently, however, the Appellant added a special plea of prescription. The Appellant conceded the merits and reached a settlement on both the merits and quantum. The High Court, therefore, only adjudicated upon the special plea of prescription.
The High Court dismissed the Appellant’s special plea with costs. It found that the strict and literal interpretation of s 23(3) of the RAF Act submitted by the Appellant was unjust and that it could not have been the intention of the legislature to deprive the plaintiff of her full prescription period of five years. It applied s4 of the Interpretation Act 33 of 1957 (the Interpretation Act). The High Court also used the definition of “day” in the RAF Act to come to its decision, despite s 23(3) of the RAF Act referring to “five years”.
Aggrieved by the dismissal of its special plea, the Appellant launched an appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) with leave of the High Court.
The SCA held that the RAF Act is social legislation, the primary concern of which is to give the greatest possible protection to persons who have suffered loss through negligence or unlawful act(s) on the part of a driver or owner of a motor vehicle.
The SCA cited the Constitutional Court case of Makate v Vodacom (Pty) Ltd where it was held that the process of interpreting statutes entailed giving a statutory provision a meaning that does not only avoid limiting rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, but also prefers a meaning that promotes those rights.
Accordingly, the SCA was bound to give a more purposive interpretation. Consequently, the SCA held that, on a proper interpretation of s 23(3) of the RAF Act, where the five-year period for bringing a claim ends on a day when the court is closed, so that summons cannot be issued and served on that day, the five-year
period should end on the next working day. To hold otherwise would deprive the respondent of her right to claim, which deprivation is an absurdity which the legislature could not have contemplated.
In conclusion, the SCA, even though it did not agree with the High Court relying on the definition of “day” in the RAF Act, found that the High Court was correct to dismiss the special plea of prescription, albeit for different reasons.
A proper interpretation of s 23(3) of the RAF Act where the five-year period for bringing a claim ends on a day when the court is closed, so that summons cannot be issued and served on that day, the five year period should end on the next working day.
Written by Ntobeko Maphanga and supervised by Charlotte Clarke , 19 September 2018