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In a close to the tussle between parents of students in private schools and the school administration on the quantum of tuition fees leviable during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Calcutta High Court has directed schools to offer a minimum of 20% reduction in the fee payable (Vineet Ruia v. State of West Bengal).
A Bench of Justices Sanjib Banerjee and Moushumi Bhattacharya issued the judgment in the matter on Tuesday.
The following were some of the Court's salient directions to private schools in the State:
No increase in fees during financial year 2020-21.
A minimum of 20% of reduction in fees is to be allowed from April 2020 till the month following the reopening of schools for regular functioning.
Non-essential charges for facilities not availed of would not be permissible.
Sessions fees are permissible as long subject to the 80% maximum limit.
For the financial year 2020-21, a maximum of 5% of the excess of revenue over expenditure would be permissible. In case a school incurred a loss as a result, they can make up for the loss during the financial years 2021-23, if regular functioning resumes by March 31, 2021.
There will be no increase in salaries of teachers or of other employees during financial year 2020-21. In the event the school gave effect to a higher pay-scale, amounts outstanding on account of pay revisions to teachers and other employees cannot be recovered from fees during this academic year.
Parents whose financial situation did not warrant a reduction in fee have been requested not to avail the reduction.
On a case to case basis, schools have been directed to make further reductions or exemptions for parents unable to make payments on time. Whenever any parent applies for such a reduction, they are to support their application with financial statements.
The above directions do not apply to those schools whose monthly fees averaged an amount below Rs. 800, the Court stated. Such schools would be allowed to make reductions as per the directions if they chose to do so.
Applications for additional reductions will have to be made by November 15, 2020 and the schools are expected to communicate the decision to the applicant by December 31.
To resolve grievances, a Committee to adjudicate grievances has also been constituted. The Committee comprises of Senior Advocate Tilok Bose, the Principal or Headmistress of Heritage School, and Advocate Priyanka Agarwal.
Applications to the Committee are required to be made after paying a fee of Rs. 1,000. The Committee has been directed to decide applications within 45 days. The corpus of application fees will be used to hire auditors to tabulate or scrutinise accounts.
Till a dispute is resolved, schools have been directed not to take coercive action against students.
Both the Judges made detailed observations on the substantive questions of law involved, including whether the Court could interfere with the fee structure of an institution administered by a religious and linguistic minority.
On whether any involvement of the Court would infringe rights of minority institutions under Articles 19 and 30
Justice Sanjib Ray underscored that even minority institutions had to adhere to certain fundamental norms and they could not be run for profit.
Subject to this, an assessment of the fees charged could not infringe the right of a linguistic or religious minority to run or administer educational institutions. However, this exercise was limited and could not invade the freedom of minority institutions to determine their fee structure, the Court said.
On whether the Court's exercise of calling for accounts amounted to a breach of the schools' privacy
Reiterating the principle that the right to privacy was not absolute, Justice Ray stated that privacy or rights under Articles 19 and 30 could not be used for profiteering.
The Court emphasized that it could not unduly interfere in the fees charged by such schools unless unimpeachable evidence of profiteering is demonstrated. Even then virtual daylight robbery has to be shown, if there are no other legislative or executive regulations. Justice Ray opined,
In his concurring opinion Justice Bhattacharya stated that the same was done to arrive at a solution to the conflict.
On the question of whether the parents deserved fee reductions
Observing that there were several parents who diverted a substantial part of their disposable resources, at a great personal sacrifice, to get their children admitted to high-end schools Justice Bhattacharya stated:
"The bottom line is simply this; a benefit, like a right, cannot be denied to a greater number merely on the ground that it may be misused by a few."
The Judges recorded that the batch petition was to be treated as public interest litigation and apply across the State. However, it was not to be treated as a precedent, the Judges emphasized.
The batch of pleas was disposed of on these terms.
Read the Judgment here: