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Home Businesses – Is Yours Legal?

The sharp upsurge in businesses operating remotely as a result of the pandemic lockdowns means a lot more people working from home – most presumably in low-profile home offices, but inevitably some in the form of full-on business activities from home. What effect is that having on the property market?

Work-from-home and what’s hot in property market trends 

Let’s firstly have a look at what trends are emerging in the “hot property” market, driven by both the work-from-home phenomenon and by the general economic fallout from the pandemic and the lockdowns –

  • Increased interest in coastal and country properties from employees and businesses looking to work remotely away from congested highways and crowded cities.
  • Upsizing by stay-at-home workers looking for extra home office space and facilities.
  • Downsizing by financially-stretched homeowners reducing costs and looking to realise the value in large houses they no longer need (either by selling or by renting out).
  • Increased demand for rental properties in some sectors, driven presumably by owners selling homes to cut costs, perhaps also by sales in anticipation of emigration or semi-gration.
The law

The next question of course, regardless of whether you are selling, buying or staying put, is this – what does the law have to say about home businesses? As a small business are you clear to move your business into your house? As an employee is there anything in the law to stop you from setting up a home office? As a neighbour do you have any right to object?

Those are of course important questions to ask before you buy a “home-office-house” and before you open up a home business in your existing house. The last thing you want is to be shut down by unhappy neighbours or the local municipality.

The two questions to ask

The High Court has confirmed that there are essentially two questions to ask –

  1. Is the activity in question allowed by local zoning and land use laws?
  2. Is there any other legal block in place, for example are there any title deed restrictions or, if the residence is part of a community scheme like a Home Owners Association (HOA) or a Sectional Title complex, do the complex’s rules allow it?
Living in a complex – the hair salon allowed by zoning laws but closed down by the HOA
  • A homeowner had for many years run a hair salon business from her home in a complex, although both the HOA’s constitution and its conduct rules allowed only residential usage of houses except with authorisation via a special resolution. She was bound by the constitution and rules both by the terms of her purchase agreement and by her title deeds.
  • When she refused to cease business the HOA approached the High Court for an interdict. Her central argument was that her home business was permitted by the local zoning regulations in terms of which certain small scale non-residential activities were allowed in the area.  
  • Not relevant, held the Court in interdicting the homeowner from continuing her business.  She had agreed to a limitation of her rights, she had agreed to forfeit her right to use their land for anything but residential purposes and the HOA had not purported to change the zoning scheme and was “well within its rights to seek to preserve the residential character of the development”.

In other words, HOA and Body Corporate rules can in principle be more restrictive than local zoning laws and effectively override them in such a case. Bear in mind that each case will be decided on its facts, and in addition there has been some speculation recently that the National State of Disaster regulations and orders could be used to justify a departure from that principle. Much safer however to assume that you are bound by your complex’s rules (which may in any event allow you to work from home and/or to run a small business, although perhaps only with consent).

Must you apply for rezoning or municipal consent? 3 categories to consider

If you don’t live in a residential complex or if you do but are in compliance with the complex’s rules, you need to check that you aren’t going to be stopped from operating (perhaps even fined) by your local authority. 

Your local municipality will have its own land use and zoning regulations and bye-laws, but generally speaking your business activities will fall into one of three categories –

  1. Micro business: Depending on the zoning of your particular area, working alone from home in a home office is highly unlikely to cause any issues either legally or practically, and you are also likely to be allowed to conduct small scale business activities from home without consent where your business activities fall into your municipality’s “micro-business” or “home enterprise/undertaking” category (check with your local municipality on its rules in this regard).
  2. Municipal consent: As soon however as your activities go further (there are normally limits on things like the nature of the business, number of staff, percentage area of the house used for the business, parking availability, noise/nuisance factors and the like) you will probably have to apply for municipal consent or a permit to operate.
  3. Rezoning: In other cases you may need to go further and apply for complete rezoning of the property, possibly also for removal of title deed restrictions.

Take specific advice in any doubt!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as 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 professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Buying a Business? Make Sure the Seller Publishes Notice of the Sale

“The purpose of the legislature in enacting s 34(1) is to protect creditors by preventing traders who are in financial difficulty from disposing of their business assets to third parties who are not liable for the debts of the business, without due advertisement to all the creditors of the business.” (Extract from judgement below)

With our economy in trouble and the ongoing pandemic and lockdown damaging more and more businesses by the day, sales by distressed companies and traders are likely to rocket. 

If you are a prospective buyer here, be aware of one particular danger lurking in the wings for you. 

Follow this rule to protect yourself – before you buy any business, its goodwill or assets forming part of the business, take legal advice as to whether or not the sale must first be advertised in terms of section 34 the Insolvency Act. You stand to lose both the business and the purchase price if section 34 requires the sale to be advertised and it isn’t.

Your risk is that if an unadvertised sale is challenged by a liquidator/trustee (or by a creditor if there is no liquidation/sequestration) within 6 months of the sale, it is likely to be declared void.  In that event, you will be lucky to get even a portion of your purchase price back – with the seller in financial difficulty your concurrent claim is probably worthless.

As a creditor…

The advertising requirement is designed to protect you as a creditor from having to claim from a debtor which suddenly becomes a worthless shell having quietly sold away its business and/or assets beyond your reach. 

Note that you only have protection if you have instituted proceedings against your debtor “for the purpose of enforcing [your] claim” before the transfer of the business – a good reason not to drag your heels when suing a recalcitrant debtor.

When advertisement isn’t necessary

The sale will only be valid without advertisement if –

  • The sale was made “in the ordinary course of business” (unlikely where the business subsequently fails), or 
  • It was made for “securing the payment of a debt” (unlikely to be under your control as buyer), or
  • The seller wasn’t a “trader”.  As “trader” is widely defined in the Act, and as the onus of proof here is squarely on the buyer, that’s not going to be easily proved. As we shall see below, you can be a “trader” in property as much as in any other commodity.

As a general rule therefore, it is safest to insist on the sale being properly advertised before you pay out the purchase price, but there are grey areas and pitfalls here so take specific advice. Note also that the Act’s requirements for the timing and manner of advertisement are strict and must be followed to the letter.  

As a recent High Court case shows, as a buyer (in this case of a property business) you could lose everything if you lose sight of this very real danger…

An R8m claim and a property transfer (and bond) set aside
  • A property owner bought and developed a property firstly into a shopping centre and later into a shopping centre with 11 sectional title units.
  • Whilst being sued by a creditor for R8m, the owner sold a section to a buyer and transferred it to him, and a bank registered a bond over the property.
  • The creditor obtained judgement against the owner only to find that it had been placed into liquidation. It asked the High Court to set aside the sale on the basis that the sale had not been advertised in terms of section 34 and was therefore void.
  • The buyer countered by denying that it was a “trader” as defined in the Insolvency Act. Its core business, it said, was to acquire and then rent out properties, “its business objective was not the buying and selling property per se as its stock in trade”.
  • Finding on the facts that the owner was indeed a “trader” when it sold the property to the buyer, the Court set aside the sale, the transfer to the buyer, and the bank’s mortgage bond.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as 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 professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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The Pandemic and Business Interruption Cover – Can You Claim?

“…it must be asked whether, but for the Covid-19 outbreak, the interruption or interference to the Applicant’s business would have occurred when the Lockdown Regulations were promulgated” (extract from the judgment below)

It’s no surprise that our media has been awash with reports on the recent High Court judgment around a restaurant’s business interruption cover claims.

The restaurant in question, like many other businesses of all types and sizes, has been suffering severe losses from being forced to close (and latterly trade under very limited conditions) during the lockdown. Its business interruption claim in terms of an “Infectious Diseases Extension” clause in its policy (which it had faithfully been renewing annually since 2007) was rejected by the insurers.

What caused your business losses? The two things you must prove…

Sued by the restaurant, the insurers raised a whole slew of defences to the claim, all of them ultimately rejected by the Court.

Of most interest to businesses holding this type of cover will be the central question of whether or not the wording of your particular policy, in particular any “notifiable disease extension” clause (which in this case was a no-premium, “free cover” extension) will cover you for losses sustained in the particular circumstances of this pandemic and the lockdown. 

The clause in this particular case promised cover for ”interruption or interference with the business due to (e) notifiable disease occurring within a radius of 50 km of the premises…”. 

The insurer argued that this covered only losses resulting from business interruption “where the interruption is due to the Notifiable disease and not losses as a result of other causes” and that in this case business was interrupted not by the Covid-19 outbreak but rather by the lockdown “which is not insured under the Policy.”  It also argued that “there was no sufficient causal link between the Covid-19 outbreak and the [restaurant]’s eventual loss.” The restaurant, it said, could have taken out other policies to specifically cover it in these circumstances but it chose not to do so. 

In a nutshell, the Court found that the restaurant had to show two things –

  1. “The Covid-19 as a Notifiable disease, caused or materially contributed to the “Lockdown Regulations” that gave rise to the Applicant’s claim (this is a factual enquiry). If it did not, then no legal liability can arise…”
  2. “If it did, then the second question becomes relevant, namely whether the conduct is linked to the harm sufficiently closely or directly for legal liability to ensue, or whether the harm is too remote from the conduct”.

Finding that the restaurant had indeed proved causation as above, the Court declared that it was covered for such of its losses as it “is able to calculate and quantify from time to time”.

So are you covered?

The insurers have said they are taking this matter on appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal (the insurance industry as a whole of course faces substantial losses from these claims), but remember that your particular policy may anyway be worded so as to cover you. There are also media reports of similar claims being met by some insurers, and of interim relief being offered by others. As the Court in this case put it “each case must be decided upon its own facts and the law”.

Moreover the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) says that “The National Lockdown cannot be used by any insurer as grounds to reject a claim” and that “policyholders are able to claim in instances where they can show that they have satisfied the requirements of their specific policy, whether it was before, during or after the national lockdown”. You can complain to the FSCA if you feel that you have been treated unfairly.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as 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 professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Websites of the Month: Why and How to Encourage Whistleblowing in Your Workplace

Our law (in the form of the Protected Disclosures Act) encourages employees to disclose unlawful or irregular conduct in their workplaces without fear of reprisal. 

Why encourage it?

“3 Reasons Why Whistleblowing is Important for Public and Private Companies” on the Compliance Line website here suggests that employers should actively encourage their employees to “whistleblow” because –

  1. “The majority of fraud is captured through Whistleblowing”. It should be one of your frontline protections against financial loss from criminal activity.
  2. “Whistleblowers are often close to the action and have the most important information”.
  3. “Whistleblowing helps align people so the organization can pursue its vision and mission”. You are in essence protecting your business from two serious risks – reputational damage and the negative consequences of corporate non-compliance.

Lockdown has subjected businesses and their employees to unusually high levels of stress – financially and generally. That is bound to expose companies to new and greater risks of unlawful conduct and loss, and with that comes an increased need to protect yourself and your business from those risks.

And how to encourage it?

“How to make whistleblowing work” on the Good Corporation’s website brings together multiple suggestions on how to create a successful whistleblowing system, whilst a whistleblowing platform like Code Red (“designed in accordance with the King IV code on corporate governance which encourages ethical business leadership and organizational culture”) or Whistle Blowers makes it easy to encourage effective and anonymous online reporting.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as 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 professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Directors and Business Rescue in the Time of COVID-19

“A stitch in time saves nine” (wise old proverb)

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown have opened up new avenues of profit for some businesses, but they have also subjected many others to the spectre of business failure. 

Unfortunately we can expect the level of bankruptcies to surge for some time to come, and the domino effect will multiply the numbers until our economy turns the corner.

If financial distress looms for your own company, bear in mind the very onerous duties imposed on directors by the Companies Act. One of those duties is to avoid any form of “reckless trading” or “trading in insolvent circumstances”, and if you drop the ball on that one you risk personal liability, claims for damages, and even criminal prosecution.

What action should you take? There is a lot at stake here so specific professional advice is indispensable, but it is essential to face realities and to take decisive action quickly. Your legal options are likely to be either liquidation or business rescue. Let’s compare them…

Business rescue v liquidation

Liquidation: If your company is terminally ill you will probably have no option but to put it out of its misery by applying for liquidation. In that event a liquidator is appointed to oversee the winding-up of the company, to sell its assets and to distribute the net proceeds to creditors. Liquidation’s big advantage is in providing an orderly winding up of the company’s affairs, but there will be few winners emerging from the process.

All stakeholders are likely to lose out in a liquidation scenario. Shares become worthless, you lose your directorship, employees lose their jobs and, although they have preferent claims for outstanding pay, leave etc, these could well be worthless. Creditors holding some form of security aside, other creditors (which would include you if you have a loan account) are left with concurrent claims – which are probably worthless too. 

To top all that off, if you signed suretyship for any claims, you will be personally liable for them.

Business rescue: Business rescue on the other hand is designed to restructure the company’s affairs and business “in a manner that maximises the likelihood of the company continuing in existence on a solvent basis or, if it is not possible for the company to so continue in existence, results in a better return for the company’s creditors or shareholders than would result from the immediate liquidation of the company.”

Either way all stakeholders stand to benefit, including you as a director, shareholder and/or loan account creditor. Your staff have a better chance of keeping their jobs, suppliers have a better chance of retaining your company as an ongoing customer, and the economy benefits from avoiding another business failure (SARS in particular will be happy to retain your company as a taxpayer!).

The success rate for business rescues is not high, but even if it is partially successful it is likely to be better than liquidation. 

There have also been concerns expressed about the costs of business rescue, and although these concerns have been disputed, cost is perhaps a factor to be put in the balance with all the other factors mentioned above when deciding between the two options.

How does it work?

In a nutshell (this is of necessity just a brief overview of what can be a very complex subject) –

  • Normally you would voluntarily place the company into business rescue with a board resolution; alternatively an outside stakeholder can apply for a court order (which you could oppose). 
  • A business rescue practitioner (often referred to as a “BRP”) is then appointed to take full management control of the company in substitution for the existing board and management, and to investigate the company’s affairs in order to “consider whether there is any reasonable prospect of the company being rescued”. The company is in the interim protected from legal action by creditors via a moratorium.
  • As a director you “must continue to exercise the functions of director, subject to the authority of the practitioner”, plus you have “a duty to the company to exercise any management function within the company in accordance with the express instructions or direction of the practitioner, to the extent that it is reasonable to do so”. In other words, you must assist and cooperate with the BRP as required.
  • The BRP convenes a first meeting of creditors to advise whether there is a reasonable prospect of rescuing the company.
  • If rescue seems feasible the BRP will then formulate a business rescue plan and present it to another meeting of creditors for consideration and voting. 
  • If the business rescue plan is adopted and successfully implemented, the company is returned to the marketplace as a viable business. 
  • If it turns out that there is no prospect of rescue or if the business rescue plan is rejected without any extension of the business rescue proceedings, the court can convert the rescue proceedings into a full liquidation. It can also in some circumstances set aside the business rescue resolution or court order.
Timing is everything!

“A stitch in time” really does make sense here. Your chances of rescuing the business are statistically (and logically) much greater if you take action as quickly as possible after the threat of financial distress first rears its ugly head. 

As to the legal position, our courts have put it this way: “… it is clear that the business rescue procedure is intended to be used at the earliest possible moment, i.e. when a company is showing signs of pending insolvency, but where it has not yet reached the stage of actual insolvency.”

Moreover the longer you leave it, the more likely you are to find yourself personally in trouble with the law and the higher the chance of all stakeholders losing everything.

Bear in mind that access to financing will be critical here, as will active support from major creditors both during the business rescue proceedings and in the longer term. 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as 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 professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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POPIA’s Deadline is 30 June 2021 – Ignore the “Fake Headlines” But Start Planning!

At long last the main provisions of POPIA (the Protection of Personal Information Act) have been gazetted, and they will commence on 1 July 2020. That means that the one year transitional period will expire on 30 June 2021

Don’t panic just yet, and ignore the many “fake headlines” in the media implying that you are at immediate risk of non-compliance, but at the same time don’t leave this to the last minute! Preparing for compliance is going to be a time-consuming affair, almost all South African businesses will need to comply, and the penalties for not doing so will be very severe indeed – 

  • You risk administrative fines of up to R10m;
  • You could face criminal prosecution (with up to 10 years’ imprisonment);
  • You could be sued for millions by anyone whose data has been compromised, and this is an instance of strict liability” in that no “intent or negligence” on your part need be proved;
  • The loss of trust and the adverse publicity resulting if your data breach goes public could be devastating.

In future issues we’ll let you have a lot more practical advice on how POPIA will affect your business, and on the steps you will have to take to protect yourself from the dangers of non-compliance, but for now get started with this first planning step: Ask yourself what personal information you hold, where you hold it, who has access to it, and how secure it is. 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as 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 professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Website of the Month: The Mental Battle of Running a Small Business in Lockdown Level 3

“This Too Shall Pass. It might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass” (Unknown)

Entrepreneurs and the small businesses they run are bearing much of the brunt of our deepening economic woes. Some SMEs have prospered, others have sunk – most of us have just battled on, preparing for and dreaming of happier times to come.

In “The mental battle of running a small business” on Daily Maverick Nic Haralambous shares his thoughts on how to stay mentally fit in these trying times with these wise words: “Your emotional wellbeing is an imperative part of your success and the survival of your business”.

P.S. There may just be some light at the end of the tunnel here – keep an eye on the New York Times “Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker” here. Hold thumbs! 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as 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 professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Your Website of the Month: Lockdown Advice for Entrepreneurs

“The scale of the national COVID-19 lockdown is unprecedented in living memory. The repercussions – personal, professional, national and international – will reverberate for years to come. As entrepreneurs, we need to be making the right decisions for right now to ensure that our businesses and our people’s livelihoods do not become another casualty of the virus.”

At date of writing it is still unclear to what extent the Lockdown will be relaxed in each Province, but regardless of timelines the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis it has landed us all in are not going anywhere in a hurry.

Businesses and perhaps SMEs in particular face both enormous challenges and many new opportunities. Some good solid advice on how they can navigate these stormy seas comes from Allon Raiz of Raizcorp in the form of a series of articles under the heading “Lockdown advice for entrepreneurs” here. To date six articles are available –

  • “Get to rational quickly”
  • “Building an opportunity matrix”
  • “Scenario planning as a vital tool”
  • “Building an exploded resources list”
  • “Creating a small list of big questions”
  • “Embrace your X”.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as 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 professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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