Essence

Wightman test: When drafting answering affidavits legal advisers must learn and engage with disputed facts and reveal them fully and accurately otherwise it should not come as a surprise if the court takes a robust view of the matter.

Decision

Wightman t/a J W Construction v Headfour (Pty) Ltd (66/2007) [2008] ZASCA 6; [2008] 2 All SA 512 (SCA); 2008 (3) SA 371 (SCA) (10 March 2008).

Judges

Heher JA (Mpati DP, Cameron JA, Ponnan JA and Mhlantla AJA concurring)

Significance

A real, genuine and bona fide dispute of fact can exist only where the court is satisfied that parties who purport to raise the dispute have in their affidavits seriously and unambiguously addressed the disputed facts.  A bare denial may meet the requirement if there is no other option.  But it may not be sufficient if the averment is within the knowledge of the averring party and a basis is not set for disputing the veracity or accuracy of the averment.

Reasons

Discussion by GilesFiles
Quotations from judgment

“[11] The first task is accordingly to identify the facts of the alleged spoliation on the basis of which the legal disputes are to be decided. If one is to take the respondents’ answering affidavit at face value, the truth about the preceding events lies concealed behind insoluble disputes. On that basis the appellant’s application was bound to fail.

Bozalek J thought that the court was justified in subjecting the apparent disputes to closer scrutiny. When he did so he concluded that many of the disputes were not real, genuine or bona fide. For the reasons which follow I respectfully agree with the learned judge.

[12] Recognising that the truth almost always lies beyond mere linguistic determination the courts have said that an applicant who seeks final relief on motion must in the event of conflict, accept the version set up by his opponent unless the latter’s allegations are, in the opinion of the court, not such as to raise a real, genuine or bona fide dispute of fact or are so far-fetched or clearly untenable that the court is justified in rejecting them merely on the papers: Plascon-Evans Paints Ltd v Van Riebeeck Paints (Pty) Ltd 1984 (3) SA 623 (A) at 634E-635C.

See also the analysis by Davis J in Ripoll-Dausa v Middleton NO 2005 (3) SA 141 (C) at 151A-153C with which I respectfully agree. (I do not overlook that a reference to evidence in circumstances discussed in the authorities may be appropriate.)

[13] A real, genuine and bona fide dispute of fact can exist only where the court is satisfied that the party who purports to raise the dispute has in his affidavit seriously and unambiguously addressed the fact said to be disputed.

There will of course be instances where a bare denial meets the requirement because there is no other way open to the disputing party and nothing more can therefore be expected of him. But even that may not be sufficient if the fact averred lies purely within the knowledge of the averring party and no basis is laid for disputing the veracity or accuracy of the averment.

When the facts averred are such that the disputing party must necessarily possess knowledge of them and be able to provide an answer (or countervailing evidence) if they be not true or accurate but, instead of doing so, rests his case on a bare or ambiguous denial the court will generally have difficulty in finding that the test is satisfied.

I say ‘generally’ because factual averments seldom stand apart from a broader matrix of circumstances all of which needs to be borne in mind when arriving at a decision. A litigant may not necessarily recognise or understand the nuances of a bare or general denial as against a real attempt to grapple with all relevant factual allegations made by the other party.

But when he signs the answering affidavit, he commits himself to its contents, inadequate as they may be, and will only in exceptional circumstances be permitted to disavow them.

There is thus a serious duty imposed upon a legal adviser who settles an answering affidavit to ascertain and engage with facts which his client disputes and to reflect such disputes fully and accurately in the answering affidavit. If that does not happen it should come as no surprise that the court takes a robust view of the matter”.