Paid in full: The enduring battle for advanced emolument attachment order debtor protection in South Africa
Author: Stephan van der Merwe
Affiliations: BComm LLB LLM LLD PGDIP Higher Education Teaching and Learning, Senior Attorney and Lecturer, Stellenbosch University Law Clinic
Source: Stellenbosch Law Review, Volume 34 Issue 1, 2023, p. 137 – 160
Following the Constitutional Court’s landmark judgment in University of Stellenbosch Legal Aid Clinic v Minister of Justice and Correctional Services 2016 6 SA 596 (CC), significant legal reforms were introduced to the South African debt collection landscape in 2018. Amendments to the Magistrates’ Courts Act were aimed at combatting abuses in the popular emolument attachment order (“EAO”) process, where EAO debtors had suffered significant exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous creditors and their collection agents. These important amendments were aimed at requiring judicial oversight during the issuing of new EAOs. Correcting the undisputed devastation wrought by past and continuing EAO abuse remains the responsibility of individual debtors, their employers, and organisations like the Legal Practice Council. Efforts in this regard are severely hampered by the prevailing lack of transparency and the ambiguity of legislation associated with the EAO mechanism. Specifically, legislation calls on the enforcement of EAOs “until the relevant judgment debt and costs have been paid in full”, while no definition or explanation is tendered to elucidate what this entails. As a result, EAO debtors remain at the mercy of their creditors, who are able to escalate even minor debts into substantial EAO debt collections by the unilateral addition of interest, collections fees, and legal costs. Several important legal developments related to this issue have occurred since the relevant Constitutional Court judgment and subsequent legislative amendments. This article will consider these developments to establish if the position of EAO debtors, exploited post issuing of an EAO, has improved in recent years.