A Cape Town mother’s victory after a six-year legal battle will mean lower school fees for thousands of single parents.
The Supreme Court of Appeal ruled on Wednesday that if one parent refused to provide proof of income‚ public schools had to grant a fee exemption based solely on the custodial parent’s income.
Michelle Saffer began her fight in 2011 when Fish Hoek High School refused to grant her a fee exemption for her daughter‚ saying it needed to see her former husband’s financial statements.
The school said Saffer and her former husband were a “family unit”‚ and when an application was made for financial assistance the “annual gross combined income” of both biological parents had to be considered.
Because the former couple had a difficult relationship‚ she was not able to secure her ex-husband’s assistance.
When the school turned down her application in 2013‚ Saffer won an order from the High Court in Cape Town that each parent was liable for half of their child’s school fees.
The Western Cape government appealed‚ and Saffer’s counsel argued in the SCA in Bloemfontein that the formula used to calculate fee exemptions was prejudicial to single parents whose partners or former partners failed to supply details of their income.
They also argued that the definition of “combined annual gross income of parents” was inconsistent with the constitution and invalid.
The SCA’s ruling said that in dealing with Saffer’s fee exemption applications‚ the school and its governing body subjected her to repeated violations of her constitutional and statutory rights.
A statement from the Equal Education Law Centre‚ which supported Saffer in her legal fight‚ said: “The court has made it clear that in circumstances where one parent has refused or failed to provide their income details‚ public schools shall grant a conditional fee exemption to the custodial parent‚ having regard only to her or his income.
“This conditional fee exemption shall be the total or partial fee exemption to which the applicant would have been entitled to if he or she were the only parent of the learner concerned.
“The granting of such a conditional exemption will not limit the public school from taking legal steps to enforce payment by the other parent of the learner for the balance of the school fees. This ensures that non-custodial parents are held responsible where required.”
The law centre said it looked forward to the Western Cape Education Department “taking all necessary steps to ensure the effective implementation of the order by public schools”.