|On 3 May 1997, the First Respondent became entitled to claim a child pension benefit from the Appellant on behalf of her daughter (“Mbali”), upon the death of her husband, who was a member of the Appellant.
The Appellant’s Pension Fund Rules (“the Rules”) contained a clause which prohibited the granting of a pension fund benefit of this nature for a dependant who was over the age of 18 years. An exception to the aforementioned Rule was that the child pension benefit may be extended until the age of 23 years where, inter alia, the beneficiary was a “full-time student”.
On 25 May 2011, the Appellant ceased payment of Mbali’s pension benefit on the ground that she was a student at UNISA. The basis for the decision was premised on the fact that UNISA was a distance learning institution that does not provide formal lectures to its students and, as a result, Mbali could not be said to be a “full-time student” as is required by the Rules. In reaching its decision, the fund relied on certain documentation from UNISA which allegedly disclosed that UNISA did not have any “full-time” students.
The First Respondent successfully lodged a complaint with the Pension Funds Adjudicator. The Appellant, dissatisfied with the outcome thereof, then challenged the decision in the Kwa-Zulu Natal Local Division of the High Court (“the High Court”). The High Court dismissed the matter and thus the Appellant sought to appeal the matter in the Supreme Court of Appeal (“the SCA”)
The SCA found that the Appellant could not rely upon UNISA’s definition of a “full-time student” to abdicate itself of the task of determining whether Mbali qualified for a child’s pension or not. Instead, it was held that the Appellant should have rather relied upon the Rules.
The SCA stated that, in determining whether a child was a beneficiary in terms of the Rules, the Appellant was required to use the ordinary meaning of the term “full-time student” which hinged upon the concept of the individual being a “dependent child”.
In determining whether a student may be classified as a full-time student, it was held that the ordinary meaning of “dependent child” is broader than the definition allocated to it in terms of the Rules. This is due to the fact that the former requires an examination to be conducted on each case, on its merits by considering, inter alia, the course of the study being undertaken by the student and the commitment of the student to those studies.
The court considered the fact that Mbali carried out the same workload as any other student registered for a similar degree at any other formal university and the fact that she aimed to complete her degree in the same three-year period.
The court further took into consideration that Mbali spent all her time during the day working on her studies and participating in study groups organised by UNISA.
After taking the above into consideration, the court found that Mbali was indeed a full-time student and thus the First Respondent was entitled to claim a child’s pension in terms of the Rules of the Fund. The SCA accordingly dismissed the appeal with costs.
Where there is ambiguity as to the interpretation of a word, the rules of interpretation dictate that the ordinary meaning of same is to be preferred. In addition, when the Fund makes a decision, it should arrive at its decision on a case by case basis after construing and interpreting its own Rules, not extraneous documents.
Written by Jonathan Green and supervised by Jasvir Sewnarain