The Gujarat High Court on Friday (18th September) declined to entertain an application seeking to pass appropriate orders for charging of tuition fees and other fees of the self-financed schools during the period of physical closure of the schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Division Bench of Chief Justice Vikram Nath and Justice J. B. Pardiwala left it open for the State to take an appropriate and balanced decision as it may deem fit, keeping in mind the interest of all the stakeholders.
Court's previous Order
It may be noted that by Court's order dated 31st July 2020 passed in a batch of four Writ Petitions along with the Special Civil Application No.8819 of 2020, the Court had issued certain directions as contained from para 28 onwards being the operative portion of the order.
For ready reference, paras 28, 30 and 31 are reproduced below:
"28 It would be too much to say that private schools shall not demand any fees. At the same time, we expect the federation and the State Government to sit across the table for the purpose of arriving at some understanding with an open mind and open heart. Once all the issues are resolved amicably, the State Government shall issue a fresh Government Resolution in this regard.
30 We hope and trust that the State Government and the association of unaided private schools will be able to reach to an amicable understanding.
31 As regards the other issues, the State Government shall follow the guidelines issued by the Central Government referred to above.
Relief prayed for before the Court
The relief claimed in this present application was to take on record the documents of the exercise undertaken and also the developments and to pass further appropriate orders for charging of tuition fees and other fees of the self-financed schools during the period of physical closure of the schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Advocate General, while referring to the materials on record, submitted that the writ petitioner - the Federation of Self-Financed Schools (respondent No.1 herein), after due deliberations with the State, declined to accept the suggestions of the State for flat deduction of 25% of tuition fees and as such, the negotiations failed and that is why the State is before us for passing appropriate orders, as prayed for.
Arguments put forth
Senior Advocate Mihir Joshi (appearing for the writ petitioner) submitted that the Federation of Self-Financed Schools i.e. the writ petitioner had made a counter proposal before the State as contained in the letter dated 17th August 2020 addressed to the Chief Minister and the Education Minister, which was however not accepted.
He further submitted that the present application would not be maintainable.
Advocate Vishal Dave (the Counsel for the All Gujarat Parents Association) in his submissions supported the submissions of Senior Advocate Joshi that the Civil Application would not be maintainable.
He however, submitted that the State ought to have taken an independent decision after the negotiations had failed.
Agreeing with the submissions made by Senior Advocate Joshi (the Senior Counsel appearing for the writ petitioner) and Advocate Dave (the Counsel for the All Gujarat Parents Association) the Court was not inclined to entertain the present application.
It may be noted that while considering certain writ petitions which raised the issue of school fees, the Gujarat High Court, in an order passed on 19th June, directed the Advocate General to take up these issues with the State Government and see to it that the private schools across the State of Gujarat do not proceed to cancel the admission on failure of the parents to deposit the fees by 30.06.2020.
Further, on 31st July, the Gujarat High Court had quashed a government order restraining private unaided schools from collecting tuition fees until they reopened, stating that such an injunction will force smaller institutions to shut down.
The court had set aside three clauses of a government resolution (GR) issued on July 16:
ONE, that no fees shall be charged by any unaided schools either towards the tuition fees or in relation to any optional activity so long as the schools are being conducted online;
TWO, that the expenditure incurred in the salary of teaching and non-teaching staff of the Schools shall be considered while determining the fees for the next year; and
THREE, that the fees, if already paid, shall be adjusted against the fees which would become payable upon the physical opening of the schools.
The bench had requested the State Government to convene a meeting with the office-bearers of the association of unaided private schools and try to arrive at some understanding which is equitable in nature.
Following an impasse in the state government's negotiations with private schools over the aspect of fees in two meetings, the Gujarat government had filed an application at the Gujarat High Court on 24th August, seeking directions from the court on the way ahead.
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