If you knowingly spend money that was mistakenly deposited into your account, you are committing a crime.

That is according to a legal expert, after a student from the Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape mistakenly received a R14-million bursary allowance, instead of the usual R1,4oo monthly payment.

The student claims she reported the matter to the University’s SRC but took no further action.

The allowance was transferred on June 1 and the payment was reversed on August 13, but by then the student had splurged nearly R800,000.

The university said the student will be expected to repay the money she spent over and above her usual allowance.

A legal expert said if you are aware that you received money in error, you will be liable to repay the money in full, even if you have spent some of the cash, as in the case of the WSU student.

Wits law professor Stephen Tuson said spending money that does not belong to you is permanently depriving the owner of the money of their property and that constitutes theft. This could result in a criminal charge.

Tuson said the second consequence for the student could be that bank involved or the university would open a civil case against her to recoup the money.

“The basis of this action is called unjustified enrichment – it means that someone got paid money (where) there was no legal reason for them to get paid,” he said.

“The money can be recovered by a court action.”

In short, if money appears in your account in error, you should check with your bank where the money came from, and pay it back.

Meanwhile, Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training asked to be briefed about the erroneous payment.

“It can only serve to benefit members of the committee to be brought up to speed on how such a dubious act occurred and why it took this long to be identified. The committee wants to know the number of students who could have benefited from this money,” said committee chairperson Connie September.

“This is unacceptable that such a grave mistake as this one could occur undetected on money appropriated by Parliament, and disbursed by various entities including the department right down to the level of ending up in a private account.

“It is rather unfortunate that the student did not query the extra zeros that have been put to the original amount she should have received.”

September said the committee accepts what happened is not the fault of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, but it insisted that the companies NSFAS uses to distribute funding should be above reproach.