The Chhattisgarh High Court on Wednesday dismissed more than half a dozen writ appeals and a PIL filed against the recovery of fees by private schools.
The appeals challenged the judgment passed by a Single Judge in a Writ Petition filed by the Bilaspur Private School Management Association Society, setting aside the orders/circulars dated 01.04.2020 and 22.04.2020, issued by the Director, Public Instructions, preventing the private school managements from collecting tuition fees and also from taking any action for recovery.
Whereas, the PIL was filed by an unregistered association of the parents of students of Delhi Public School, Durg, seeking to interdict the steps being pursued to collect the ‘tuition fees’ till proper fixation of the fees is undertaken by the statutory authority under the Chhattisgarh Non-Government Schools Fees Regulation Act, 2020.
Pursuant to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the schools were virtually remaining closed from March 2020 and slowly, by the passage of time, the classes were being taken mostly online. The educational institutions, those in the ‘unaided private sector’ who are not receiving any grant or aid from the Government, run the establishment on the basis of fees collected from students. The fees are required to meet payments such as salary for teaching and non-teaching staff, installation of infrastructure, day-to-day maintenance and development. Because of the various reasons and as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, the general public was virtually finding it difficult to make both their ends meet and this affected the field of education as well, whereby the parents of the children who were pursuing their studies were finding it difficult to pay fees. At the same time, running of the schools also became difficult for want of cash in flow, due to frequent and repeated defaults by students in paying fees.
To prevent coercive action by educational institutions, the Director, Public Instructions, issued a circular dated 01.04.2020, whereby the private educational institutions were prohibited from collection of school fees and were directed not to resort to any coercive steps for recovery of the same. This was followed by another order dated 22.04.2020 issued by the very same authority directing the District Education Officers to call for a certificate/undertaking from all the private educational institutions declaring that they have not demanded payment of tuition fees from any of the students. This virtually affected the very existence of the schools as they were having no other source of income or aid from the Government. At the same time, yet another circular was issued by the Government whereby it was directed that the private educational institutions shall continue to effect payment of salary to the teachers and staff and that there shall be no deduction of the same.
The Chhattisgarh Private School Management Association filed a writ petition in the High Court against the Circular and order contending that the Government, while interdicting the collection of tuition fees, knew it very well that it was the sole source of funds as no grant or aid was being given or obtained. It was also pointed out that majority of the students studying in the institutions were from a secure background where they were in a position to pay school fees and were having strong financial support, who were more than willing to pay the school fees.
The Single Judge held that, under similar circumstances, various High Courts like the High Court of Delhi, High Court of Punjab and Haryana, and the High Court of Kerala have taken a consistent stand and have reached the conclusion that the contention that no fees should be collected during the lockdown period, should not be accepted, more so since running of the schools in the unaided segment was substantially on the tuition fees that were being collected, including payment of salary to teaching and non-teaching staff, meeting the day-to-day expenditure and maintenance and other infrastructure, besides payment of electricity, water and security charges. The Single Judge set aside the orders/circulars dated 01.04.2020 and 22.04.2020, permitting the private educational institution to collect at least the tuition fees from the students. The correctness of the Single Judge judgment is put to challenge in the appeals.
Ashish Shrivastava, the Counsel appearing for the Writ Petitioner-Association, pointed out that the Apex Court has permitted the management schools to collect the entire fees for the academic year 2019- 2020 and 2020-2021 in six equal monthly installments; ordering that the Management shall not debar any student from attending the online classes or physical classes on account of the non-payment of fees/arrears and shall not withhold the result of the examination of various students, simultaneously observing that if any parent finds difficulty in remitting the fees in terms of the interim order, it would be brought to the notice of the school concerned by filing a representation; which has been directed to be dealt with on a ‘case to case’ basis, sympathetically. It is also made clear in the Apex Court order that the arrangement shall not affect collection of fees for the academic year 2021-2022, which is to be paid as and when it becomes due and payable.
It is pointed out, what has been ordered by the learned Single Judge is only the collection of ‘tuition fees’ and that nothing else is being collected by the educational institutions represented by the Writ Petitioner-Association. Since the educational institutions cannot survive without the collection of the tuition fees, paying salary to the teaching and non-teaching staff besides providing infrastructure development and day-to-day maintenance, the challenge raised by the Appellants or the Petitioner in the Public Interest Litigation is not correct or sustainable either on fact or in law, claimed the Counsel.
The Division Bench of Chief Justice P.R. Ramachandra Menon and Parth Prateem Sahu held that the Writ Petitioner Association wants to have relief beyond the directions given by the Single Judge, without raising any challenge against the verdict. What shall be the course of action with regard to the collection of fees has been made clear by the Single Judge in the Judgement, which governs the field. As such, the attempt of the Writ Petitioner in PIL is to get over the verdict in an indirect manner, without raising any challenge against the same. As it stands so, there is no merit or bonafide in the prayers raised to interdict the payment of tuition fees for the academic year 2020-2021.
The Court also noted that the verdict passed by the learned Single Judge falls in line with the order passed by the Apex Court, though it was passed prior to the date of passing order by the Apex Court as an interim arrangement. In the circumstances, the challenge raised in the appeals fails and they are only to be dismissed as devoid of merit.