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Your municipality now has to prove your bill is correct

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What does the law say when dealing with the onus, or burden of proof, on parties when approaching a court for relief on a metering dispute?

In the recent Euphorbia (Pty) Ltd t/a Gallagher Estates v City of Johannesburg case, the applicant (Gallagher) was sued by the municipality for several million rand which the municipality alleged was owing to it as a result of water and sewage charges due and payable by Gallagher to the city. Gallagher’s response to this claim was that the charges that the municipality was seeking to recover from it were based on a faulty meter and accordingly that these amounts were not lawfully owing.

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One of the most important issues before the court was whether the duty (or onus, or burden) of proving that the charges were correctly billed lies on the municipality, or whether the duty of proving that they were incorrectly billed lies on the consumer.

The question of whose job it is to prove that the meter was or wasn’t working may seem like a very petty one but when you understand it in the context of court proceedings, it occupies a special significance. In court proceedings a party can only obtain relief from a court if it can meet its burden of proof. If there is a burden of proof on you, you have to “meet” or “discharge” your onus before the court will grant you any relief.

This is easier said than done in some cases: Consider Euphorbia’s case. Euphorbia was not legally allowed to remove and test the meter that it thought might be faulty because this legal entitlement was reserved for the city. Euphorbia did eventually get the city to remove and test the meter, but who knows whether the results provided to Euphorbia were accurate? Euphorbia couldn’t check because the meter was disposed of after the tests.

30 years of historical municipal debt could still fall on you

In this particular case the municipality contended that the meter tests showed that the meter was functioning correctly, but Euphorbia challenged this because according to the data it had of its consumption patterns, this didn’t make any sense. How is a consumer who can show that the amounts allegedly consumed fall way outside of normal patterns, but who has not been able to have its own experts test the meter, able to prove to a court that the consumption charges are incorrect, in the face of a report from the municipality saying that the meter was functioning within acceptable limits? The short answer is that it can’t – it will never be able to prove to the court that the meter was not functioning, although it can put evidence before the court to show that there is good reason for the court to infer that the meter was not functioning.

Burden of proofworld on your shoulders burden

However, this will not always be enough for the consumer to discharge the onus of proof. It is much easier for the municipality, however, to prove that the meter was working (than for the consumer to prove that the meter was not working). It is precisely for this reason that the court considered the issue of who needs to prove what, in order to succeed in this type of dispute.

The court ultimately held that because Gallagher was not in possession of all the information it needed to prove that the meter was not functioning correctly, and further because in law only the municipality was legally entitled to remove and test the meter (where Gallagher was not), that logically it would be unfair in law to burden Gallagher with the responsibility of proving that the meter was not functioning; whereas it would be fair in law to require the municipality to establish that the meter was functioning.

The important precedent set by this case is that in meter disputes it is not the consumer’s responsibility to prove that the charges billed are wrong or based on a non-functioning meter. It is rather the municipality’s responsibility to first prove that the charges are correct and/or based on a functioning meter. Once a consumer has logged a revenue-related query based on justified inferences that the billing is wrong, the burden rests on the municipality to investigate the issue, and the meter, if necessary.

Final say

This is a victory for municipal consumers as it removes the responsibility of the consumer in legal proceedings to prove that the municipality’s charges are wrong and/or that meters are not functioning properly. It instead places the opposite responsibility on the municipality: To prove that its charges are correct and that their meters are functioning properly. This will undoubtedly assist thousands of consumers in resolving disputes that have been ongoing for many years, because the consumer simply does not have access to the information or the meter in order to resolve these issues, and, despite numerous demands, the municipality is simply not attending to the issue as it should.

Case number A5052/2015, handed down on 17 June 2016 in the Gauteng Local Division of the High Court.

Words: Chantelle Gladwin, Partner, and Lindelani Msomi, candidate attorney, at Schindlers Attorneys

Chantelle Gladwin, partner at Schindlers Attorneys.

Chantelle Gladwin, partner at Schindlers Attorneys.

1. Lindelani Msomi official photo. IMG_6614

Lindelani Msomi, candidate attorney at Schindlers Attorneys.


Review overview
  • Chris de Jager 5th July 2016

    Municipalities make a very high estimate when you report a faulty meter for years
    Then they claim that the meter was bypassed and insist you make payment or sign an acknowledgement of debt and then remove the installation and their dead ,faulty meter.

  • Eileen van der Velden 7th July 2016

    We replaced our electric geyser and stove with a gas option. After 6 months, the actual kilowat usage did not decrease.
    Off I schlepped to Ethekwini municipality, sat in a queue for a few hours, to query this. Was told by dude behind counter that non reduction in usage was not possible.
    Requested meter be tested, but had to pay upfront for this. Got letter in post months later, to say meter was functioning correctly. Went back to their offices to ask how this was possible, shoved from pillar to post and got nowehere.

    Applied in May 2015 for pre paid meter, again having to pay R1 500 upfront. To date am still waiting for it to be installed. Every time I phone there is a new excuse. When I called last month to find out where I am in the queue, was told that there are no meters available so to phone back next month to check.

    Soul destroying.

    Any advice on where to from here please would be most welcome.

    thank you

    • David A Steynberg 7th July 2016

      Hi Eileen,
      Thank you for your comment and question. So sorry to hear that the consumption did not change and that you have been kicked from pillar to post in trying to get your prepaid meter installed.
      I have asked for guidance from on of our partners who deals with municipal issues.
      Will be in touch and email you when we have an answer.

    • jeanet tana botha 27th July 2016

      Buy a meter box from MR PREPAID and get a sertified electrician to put it in for you. And the problem will be soved easy peasy (they are on google I just don’t have their number

  • Jacques 7th July 2016

    Hi Eileen. In your case a lawyer is the best option. Waiting over a year for a prepaid is a “no go”.

    • Eileen van der Velden 7th July 2016

      Hi Jacques,
      Thank you for your input. Can you recommend anyone in the Durban area that isn’t going to cost me an arm and a leg, but will be effective?
      I really am loathe to throw more money at it, given I’m trying to reduce my monthly expenses.
      thank you

  • Tommie 7th July 2016

    Hi i have a big problem with my water my municipal gave me a bill of R15 000 after my water per month was R700 went to ask them where did they get the reading and they just told me they took a average reading i took my meter reading self and nothing was the same.went back and ask them why dont anyone take the right reading and the answer was it not theyre problem and im laible to pay that amount please any advise

    • cassue kruger 21st July 2016

      This is unacceptable, check your meter if there are zny movemenr when all is closed if no then they must rectify take picture of meter and sent to them

  • Delilah Graaff 9th July 2016

    I installed a borehole 2011at a great cist council stop caharging for less than a year made numerous complaints continue charging me they then change the water meter for there new ones has been showing zero but they continue to charge even though I bad photos as proof i nade an arrangement ti pay as nothing was ever done then tge acc was R21000 as they saudvthey will no longer cgarch me an the problem will be resoved nothing done went to the ombudsman they then told me to stop paying just pay my regular bill 4 mnths later still charging me nothing has been done my bill now stands at R37000 an I am been charged with incorrect readings an my meter is on ZERO wa vdo I do 4mthccount stand

  • Marius Fourie 10th July 2016

    Chantelle, Your quote: “the municipality’s responsibility to first prove that the charges are correct and/or based on a functioning meter”, the last part refers: I am a professional engineer and have just installed a meter (SANAS Certified etc..) at an estate measuring the power at the Point of Supply and proved the Muni readings are faulty. There is no correlation so I believe the Muni is billing based on the wrong meter. Does the “Based on a functioning meter” imply the correct functioning meter? What does the Muni have to prove now?

    Also, if the person at the Muni is not aware of this judgement. What do consumers do?

  • LT Falconer 11th July 2016


    Interesting article. Have a question in principle based on this – if you query an account/reading can they cut you off at that time? A friend of mine challenged her reading a a couple of times before converting to pay as you go and each time she was told to pay up or be cut off and that she can query it afterwards. Then when you query it afterwards they take forever to resolve it, if they resolve it at all.

  • Joan 21st July 2016

    My problem is that 2 meters standing next to each other for 2 properties were damaged and when they were replaced they mixed up these meters. Invoiced correctly to the right property owners but the meters are running off the wrong properties. So when the meter was sealed due to non payment of R25,000 the neighbours water was switched off and our water was still working. Confusing. The neighbour subsequently unsealed the meter and carried on regardless. Then it was sealed off again no problem the neighbour replaced the whole meter without the knowledge of the City of Jhb. Therefore the meter that now stands there is not approved. So once again contractors come to seal the meter and stand there scratching there heads because what should have been there is gone and though they tried to seal and block the new meter it was impossible it kept on working. So they leave. Thankfully I have photos but no-one at City of Jhb seems to care that they are demanding money from the wrong property owners.

  • Nick Howarth 27th July 2016

    I have a bill of R38 000 for water and lights where the water is cut and has been for over a year and the electricity is on a municipal pre-paid meter and has been for over 5 years. How do keep getting an ever increasing electricity bill when the electricity has been pre-paid for over 5 years. When the meter was installed the balance was R0 as I had just paid a R17 000 bill that I suddenly got one month and could not get to speak to anyone at the COJ to handle the clearly inflated bill (2 people living in the house at the time). There has been nobody living in the house for over a year yet the bill goes up by over R1000 pm. I have subsequently been blacklisted for the first time in my life. I’m scratching my head on this.

  • SOnja 1st August 2016

    I received a letter with 1. Not my address, 2. Not my account number, 3. My prepaid meter number. Stating that my meter is not register and i’ve got 14 days to sort this out. Funny enough all my problems started in 2010 WHEN THE ADDRESS changed.

  • izel 26th August 2016

    I’ve got a problem with a water bill. according to City of Johannesburg we have used R28 000 ‘s water in 1 month I have lodged a query COJ came and fetched our meter witch had no problem, COJ ‘s answer was if that is what the bills states we must pay it. while the meter was out when they have tested it COJ estimated on the R28 000 and the account jumped to R40000. there was a termination letter on our gate the next week we went in to ask what is going on we had to pa 30% of the R40 000 we borrowed money to make that payment needless to say our ELECTRICITY was terminated 2 days after we went in to pay the 30%.

    we are still paying off this big amount. because if that is what the bill states we must pay it. sad to say nobody helped us. after a few queries.

    all the months shows we use about R250 a months water just that one month we used R28 000’s water. and that is not enough to show there must be a problem.

    never did we see any water due to a burst pipe and never did we fix anything but the very next month everything on the water bill is back to normal again….

  • Roy 15th October 2016

    Redbury park in phoenix people have free water der and they dont pay their accounts why is dat so

  • Louise 18th October 2016

    My water has not been read for the last 6 months by the municipality and I have been receiving statements with estimation (apparently system generated).

    I took a reading and compared it to the last reading. Over 700 Kilolitres used in 6 months. Tenants are 2 working adults and no swimming pool. Average usage per month is 15 Kilolitres. (If the readings , when done, were ever correct….). Battled for days to get through to the said Metropolitan Municipality. Got hold of someone, who told me that if the meter is not running when the mains are closed then there is nothing I can do and the water was used and I must pay…

    Had to fly from the Western Cape (where I now live) to see someone/anyone to explain the logic or lack thereof face to face. Landed at the most friendly and helpful gentleman at enquiries who immediately realised something was wrong and said that my account was to be flagged and monitored for three months. I/tenant have to visit the waterworks department for a new meter to be installed and monitored for average use in these 3 months. If the average shows that they use much less water, the municipality will apparently credit the difference between the bill and the actual usage…….Why could the first person I dealt with not see the bigger picture of this monstrosity????? Wish me luck!!!