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Verbal Agreements – Not Much Good, But Lots of Bad and Ugly

“The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (Spaghetti Western, 1966)

A common myth – one that can get you into a whole lot of trouble if you aren’t alive to it – is that verbal contracts are not legally enforceable in South Africa.

The opposite is true. With very few exceptions, our law will hold you to all your agreements, whether oral or written.

What verbal agreements aren’t binding?
Not many. Only a few types of agreement must be in writing to be fully valid, the most common being contracts for the sale, exchange, or donation of land or of any “interest in land”, ante-nuptial contracts (ANCs); and deeds of suretyship.

So, watch what you say!
Firstly, although our laws of contract are complex, with many exceptions and “ifs and buts”, at the most basic level the only requirements for a binding contract are an “offer” and an “acceptance” of that offer.

So, watch what you say! Make an offer to someone else, or accept another person’s offer, and that little voice at the back of your mind telling you “Don’t worry, you aren’t actually tying yourself into anything here” is very likely to be (a) totally wrong and (b) getting you into a whole lot of trouble.

The danger – a little bit of Good, but mostly Bad and Ugly
Of course, verbal agreements do have their benefits – they’re quick, easy, and cost-free. We enter into little give-and-take deals with others in our daily lives without a second thought and with not a drop of ink in sight. And that’s absolutely fine for the little things.

But contracting orally is a terrible idea when the stakes are high –

  1. Our not-so-sharp memories: As the old proverb warns us: “The bluntest pencil is better than the sharpest memory”. It’s a human trait for us to “hear what we want to hear”. And to remember what we want to remember. You and the other person could well, in all innocence, come away from exactly the same discussion with totally different ideas and memories of what you actually agreed to.Next thing you know you’re both in court, swearing to the truth of your own versions and leaving it to a judicial officer to try and decide whose recollection is the more accurate. That decision could go either way.

    Record what you agree to, for all to see.

  2. The fraud risk: Worse, if your opponent isn’t above stretching the truth a little (or a lot!) you have the same problem but magnified. Make it difficult for a dishonest party to wriggle out of an agreement – or to misrepresent its terms – by recording it in black and white.
  3. Proof: Which brings us to the question of proof. With an oral agreement it is your word against theirs. At best, you may be lucky enough to have a witness available to support your version, but such a witness may or may not have a good memory and high credibility. That can never match up to the evidential weight of a “signed, sealed and delivered” contract.
  4. Certainty and Dispute: Let’s bring that all together under the heading of “certainty”. Although written contracts aren’t perfect – our courts are regularly faced with disputes over them – there’s a lot less room for misinterpretation, uncertainty, and dispute when you can stand up in court waving a signed piece of paper rather than saying “As I recall it…”

An end note on electronic contracts
This is a whole other topic on its own, but bear in mind that since the arrival on the scene of the ECT (Electronic Communications and Transactions) Act you can often contract electronically via email, WhatsApp, and the like. There’s both a warning there (“be careful what you agree to electronically!”) and an opportunity (“paper, pen and ink not always needed!”). Take professional advice in any doubt.

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