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Dealing With A Difficult Debtor


Going about collecting debt can be a stressful and confusing business. It only gets more frustrating when someone who owes you money doesn’t pay it back. If someone does owe you money (a debtor), then there are certain legal steps that can be taken to ensure you get your money back.

Taking legal action against a debtor can be an expensive and time-consuming process, hence the importance of having sound legal advice or the help of an attorney who specialises in debt collection.

An important point to remember is that you should have a legal agreement with the debtor in place before you seek legal action. If not, the process may be far more difficult than you’d have imagined or worse, it could backfire in your direction.

Where can debts be claimed?

Debts can be claimed in the High Court, for debts that are above R300 000. Amounts between R100 000 and R300 000 must be claimed in the Regional Court and amounts under R100 000 must be claimed in the Magistrate’s Court.

What must I do to get my money back?

When claiming a debt, the first thing to do is send a letter of demand to the debtor. The letter should include all the necessary information of the debt such as the details of the transaction, the amount outstanding and the due date for payment. This letter can also contain a threat of legal action should the debtor not pay by the due date.

If the debtor decides to ignore the letter and the threat, then you can institute legal action to recover the money. If you believe it’s not worth it or not possible to recover the full amount, then you can write the debt off, making sure you remember never to give that person money again.

An attorney can help with the process of collecting a debt. It’s important to always consult an attorney about an outstanding debt before taking any action. If you don’t enlist the help of professional attorneys, especially when you are owed a lot of money, you may end up not getting your money back at all from a lack of legal expertise. Furthermore, if you lose a court case, you may also end up paying the other person’s legal fees.

After a letter of demand is sent to the debtor, and they do not pay by the due date, then a summons will be served to them by the Sheriff of the Court. Ten days after the summons has been served, an attorney will take judgement in court against the debtor.

The following process for claiming a debt only applies to those who do not adhere to the National Credit Act (NCA). Businesses that sell credit, for example, will have other requirements to fulfil according to the NCA. All claims must be instituted within three years if you want to get your money back.


Anderson, AM. Dodd, A. Roos, MC. 2012. “Everyone’s Guide to South African Law. Third Edition”. Zebra Press.

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. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

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