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Charles Mitchell
Wed, 28 Nov 2007 16:16:06 +0000
Birksian/sine causa approach to enrichment law


I'm afraid I can't answer Jacques' question, but I would like to an additional question of my own, by way of footnote to (distraction from?) his interesting comments on the difficulties experienced in civil law jurisdictions with cases where payments are made to discharge debts which turn out not to have been due. I believe that civil law / mixed jurisdictions have also had difficulties with payments of debts for the payment of which the claimant WAS liable, but which should more properly have been paid in part or in full by a defendant who was also liable for the same debt (i.e. cases which are treated in common law systems as claims for contribution or reimbursement). Since the debt owed by the claimant to the creditor in these cases was due, one could say that there was legal ground for the creditor's payment, suggesting that there is a legal justification for the transfer on which not only the creditor but also the defendant can rely, in the event that the claimant tries to get his money back - cf Pothier, Traité des Obligations Hence I believe that civilian jurists have had to finesse this point in order to allow recovery - but I'd be interested to hear from people in civilian / mixed jurisdictions how this works out exactly.


Best wishes,


At 17:11 28/11/2007 +0200, Du Plessis, Jacques, Prof wrote:

I am relieved to hear that Duncan is not going after sine causa/absence of legal ground as a principle in all cases in all jurisdictions. Martin has already provided a Scottish perspective. As far as South African law is concerned, may I briefly add the following.

The South African experience with requiring proof of factors such as excusable mistake and compulsion to obtain restitution of transfers which were aimed at discharging liability but failed to do so (ie transfers which were not due) has in fact not been a happy one. Some problems with determining the quality of the mistake or degree of compulsion have been similar to those experienced in the common law. An inability to make these determinations has at times even forced us back into the arms of fictional implied contracts, which is clearly not where we want to be.

At a colloquium recently held in Stellenbosch on the future development of the South African law of unjustified enrichment, there was a clear appreciation on the side of many participants that we need to move away from the current approach. No-one is saying that a transfer which is not due must always be recoverable. It is accepted that there are circumstances when the recipient should be entitled to retain the transfer even though it is not due. The problem is identifying which recipient requires such protection. One possible answer is that it is the recipient who was brought under the impression that he could keep the transfer irrespective of whether it was due or not. Such a test avoids necessarily having to determine whether the transferor actually or supposedly knew/was in doubt/was ignorant about liability, or having to differentiate between the effects of various degrees of compulsion/pressure/influence on the transferor's mind; the focus is on the recipient, and on determining whether his reliance is such that he deserves to keep the undue payment.

How does all of this fit in with the sine causa requirement? In essence, one can say that the failure of the transfer to discharge a due debt prima facie means there is no legal basis for its retention; but whether it ultimately is retained without legal ground depends on whether the test above is met.

It would be interesting to hear of situations involving payments which are not due where such a test would give rise to unacceptable results, compared to an approach which requires that the undue payment must have been made under mistake or compulsion.

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