Can somebody take the law into his/her own hands?
The mandament van spolie is a summary remedy, usually issued upon urgent application, aimed at restoring control of property to the applicant from whom it was taken through unlawful self-help, without investigating the merits of the parties’ rights to control.
From the definition above it is evident that this remedy is unique, because it is not used to protect rights at all. The mandament van spolie is a unique remedy aimed at undoing the results of the taking of property by means of self-help. The idea is that people should enforce and protect their property rights by legal means and procedure, and not by self-help and force, because self-help eventually results in chaos and anarchy. For this reason it is usually said that this remedy is based upon the principle that nobody is allowed to take the law into his/her own hands. Due to its aim of restoring peace and order and discouraging self-help, the spoliation remedy does not investigate the merits of any of the parties’ interest in the property and neither of the parties is allowed to raise the question of rights. The court is simply concerned with the factual investigation, namely whether there is proof of existing control and proof of unlawful spoliation of that control. If there was in fact existing control and unlawful spoliation the court will order the spoliator to restore the spoliated control to the applicant immediately, regardless of whether that control was in fact unlawful or even legal.
The spoliation remedy is aimed at preserving peace and order in the community. People cannot be permitted to circumvent the remedy by contract. Parties to a contract cannot agree that one of them will be permitted to take property from the other without proper legal procedure. The requirements for this remedy were set out in two classic decisions that are still the most important authorities in this regard, namely Nino Bonino v De Lange 1906(T) and Yeko v Qana 1973(A).
a) Proof that the applicant was in peaceful and undisturbed control of the property. The first requirement means that the applicant had control over the property in question. For purposes of the spoliation remedy this control must have existed “peacefully and undisturbed” for a period long enough, and in a manner stable enough, to qualify any unlawful disturbance of the peace. The requirement that the control must have been peaceful and undisturbed does not refer to its legal merits, but simply to the fact that it must have been relatively stable and enduring. If not, there can hardly be a question of disturbance of the situation.
b) Proof that the respondent took or destroyed that control by means of unlawful self-help or spoliation. The second requirement for the spoliation remedy is that the existing peaceful and undisturbed control must have been unlawfully spoliated by the respondent.
One can, therefore, safely say that possession is 90% of the law. The reason for this is that spoliation is not permitted in our law. The person must use the legal processes at his disposal and cannot take the law into his own hands.
A J van der Walt & G J Pienaar: Introduction to property law, 5th edition, pg 218-223.
This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice.