How many queries do I need to log?

2022, Articles, City of Johannesburg, Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality, News, Property Law

Article by Chantelle Gladwin-Wood (Partner) and Maike Gohl (Partner)
10 November 2022

City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality (“COJ”) has recently stuck up posters in its walk-in centres advertising its “RSSC Query Escalation Process”.

THE RSSC QUERY ESCALATION PROCESS

In terms of the COJ’s latest RSSC Query Escalation Process (which is an internal policy that has been communicated to the public) an aggrieved customer must do the following in relation to its queries:

  1. Contact the Customer Service Centre, Call Centre, Key Accounts or Staff Accounts. Get a reference number. The query is sent to the Centralized Back Office, which has 30 days to resolve it.
  2. Escalate to the Assistant Director at the relevant Customer Service Centre for the region in question, or escalate by emailing backoffice@joburg.org.za . Wait 7 days.
  3. Escalate to the Deputy Director at the relevant Customer Service Centre for the region in question, or escalate by emailing backoffice@joburg.org.za . Wait 3 days.
  4. Escalate to the Director at the relevant Customer Service Centre for the region in question, or escalate by emailing backoffice@joburg.org.za . Wait 7 days.
  5. Escalate to the Unit Head at the Revenue Shared Service Centre (“RSSC”) or email escalations@joburg.org.za.

WHY DO WE CARE ABOUT THIS LONG-WINDED PROCESS?

The question that this article seeks to address is whether following this escalation process is voluntary or mandatory. This is an important question because if a customer has not followed all legitimate “internal appeals” a court may decline to assist him/her, and as such we need to question whether a customer with a dispute is obliged to escalate his query through all of these steps (and various others set out in other laws) before approaching a court for assistance, or whether this escalation process is voluntary and a customer is free to approach a court without having followed same.

WHAT DO COJ’s OTHER LAWS SAY?

The Process in terms of COJ’s amended Credit Control and Debt Collection Policy (from section 16)

  1. Log a query with the call centre. Wait 30 days.
  2. Lodge a written complaint (does not say where or who to). Wait 60 days.
  3. Lodge an appeal to the municipal manager (does not say where). Wait 30 days.
  4. Go to the Ombud or go to court.

The Process in terms of COJ’s prevailing Credit Control and Debt Collection By-laws (sections 11 and 12)

  1. Log a query or complaint. Wait 14 days (or another period of time which is reasonable for the COJ to investigate). Note that:
    • Only queries/ complaints about “amounts due” can be logged.
    • The query must be logged before or on the due date for payment.
    • The query is only valid if the customer still pays the undisputed amounts on the bill and an average amount (calculated based on the prior 3 month’s undisputed invoices) for the service charge that is disputed.
  1. Lodge a formal appeal with the municipal manager in terms of section 62 of the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act 3 of 2000. Wait 21 days.

What does Section 62 of the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act 3 of 2000 require?

A customer can lodge an appeal against a decision of a municipal official by giving notice to the municipal manager within 21 days of the taking of the decision. The municipal manager must give the appeal to the appropriate appeal authority, who must commence the appeal within 6 weeks of receiving it.

THESE LAWS CONTRADICT EACH OTHER – WHAT THE HECK AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?

There are obvious contradictions in the various “sets of rules”. Complying with one may mean non-compliance with another. Also, conduct that qualifies in terms of one may not qualify in terms of another. A court must be approached to determine what a customer must do in order to have properly exhausted internal remedies before they can approach a court for assistance. Until this happens consumers must do the “best that they can” on the facts of their unique cases, and on the advice that they get from their legal professionals. If you are going to court, always ask the Court for condonation for failure to comply with the “internal appeals” if there is any chance that you might be found to have made this mistake.

DO I REALLY HAVE TO FOLLOW EVERY STEP AND TAKE 167 DAYS BEFORE I CAN APPROACH THE COURT?

If you follow every step in the query escalation process, and then you lodge a written complaint and appeal at the earliest opportunities, it will take you at least 167 days to get to the point where you can go to court. You would also have had to have asked the COJ to fix your problem no less than 7 times.

The question is “how much is enough”? Unfortunately, there is no law answering that question at present. In our opinion the query escalation process procedure is unduly (and unlawfully) burdensome and a court will not require a customer to follow every step. Furthermore, the process is not required in any of the laws or policies that govern the COJ, as such it can be argued that it is not strictly necessary in terms of the law. It is possible that a court may require a person to have logged at least one query, and so consumers are advised to (at the very least) comply with the first step. Unfortunately, we don’t know to what extent a court will find the steps above compulsory. If every case is judged on its own merit, then a court may not fix a hard and fast rule. However, as above, you can always ask a court for condonation for your failure to comply, if you have good reasons for this.

WHEN DON’T I HAVE TO FOLLOW THIS PROCEDURE?

  1. You don’t need to show compliance with this whole long procedure if you are going to urgent court.
  2. Moreover, rates issues (relating to the valuation and categorisation of your property) can’t be dealt with in terms of the procedure above. Issues of categorisation and value must be dealt with through the objection/appeal/review process set out in the Local Government: Municipal Property Rates Act 6 of 2004 (“Rates Act”). However, if there has been an incorrect billing based on a categorisation or valuation issue, these can and must be addressed using these dispute resolution procedures, and not through the Rates Act.
  3. In terms of the relevant water and electricity policies/by-laws, if a customer disputes that a meter is functioning correctly, a meter test should be applied for. The customer must pay a fee and if the test shows that the meter is faulty, the fee will be refunded. The customer’s account will also be adjusted based on the outcome of the meter test. Failure to apply for a meter test may prejudice a customer when trying to prove in court that the meter is faulty. This must be done before following the procedure set out above.

CONDONATION

In the event that a customer has not complied with all of the legally required steps, a court may (upon being asked) condone the non-compliance. This is permitted in terms of the Promotion of Administration of Justice Act 32 of 2000.

CONCLUSION

Something as simple as logging a query can be complicated when there are so many (contradictory and confusing) laws. It might be that your municipal dispute is not being resolved because you have not been following the right dispute resolution channels. Ensure that, no matter your dispute, you follow the appropriate channels when raising your dispute because otherwise your dispute may never be resolved, and in addition if you approach a court for relief, you may be turned away or burdened with an adverse costs order for not following the correct procedure in raising the dispute with the municipality.