Though in some countries an engagement between a man and a woman is merely a romantic and social event, in South Africa it involves a legal contract that creates rights and obligations for the engaged couple. For example, if a man breaks off an engagement without good reason (in other words, he commits a breach of promise), he may be instructed by a court to pay damages to the jilted fiancé.
In May 2010 The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in Bloemfontein declared that Afrikaans singer Sunette Bridges was not entitled to any compensation from her fiancé, one Van Jaarsveld, who broke off their engagement a day after the wedding invitations were posted.
The basis for the judgment was that, in this case, the relationship between the parties had broken down irretrievably and that there was good reason for the fiancé to have broken off the engagement.
Bridges sued for damages for breach of promise in the High Court in Pretoria and was awarded R110 000 in damages for her hurt feelings and R172 413 in respect of contractual damages she had suffered.
The fiancé took the matter on appeal to the SCA when deputy president Louis Harms, who sat with four other judges, upheld Van Jaarsveld’s appeal. Judge Harms said in his judgment: “I do believe that the time has arrived to recognise that the historic approach to engagements is outdated and does not recognise the morals of our time. Public policy considerations require that our courts must reassess the law relating to breach of promise.”
The judge said he intended giving guidelines in this judgment to courts faced with such claims, without reaching any definite conclusions. As the law stood, the “innocent” party was entitled to sentimental damages if the repudiation was “contumelious”. It did not matter whether the repudiation was justified.
Judge Harms said morals had changed. Divorce, which in earlier days was available only in the event of desertion and adultery, was now available when a marriage had broken down.
“Guilt is no longer an issue. There is no reason why a just cause for ending an engagement should not likewise include the lack of desire to marry the particular person. Unwillingness to marry is clear evidence of the irretrievable breakdown of the engagement. It appears illogical to attach more serious consequences to an engagement than to marriage.”
The judge added that an engagement, in his view, allowed more time to get to know each other better and to decide whether or not to marry. A breach of promise could only lead to sentimental damages if the breach was wrongful in the delictual sense, such as that it was of an insulting nature.
Five SCA judges overturned the judgment and ordered Bridges to pay the costs. Bridges applied for leave to appeal against the judgment to the Constitutional Court but it turned down the application on the basis that it had no reasonable prospect of success.