Single Parents Paying School Fees

Late last year, the Supreme Court of Appeal gave clarity to single primary care giving parents, with unfair financial burdens, who seek school fee exemptions.

In the case of Western Cape Education Department and Others v Michelle Saffer, the legal issue of whether or not both parents are required to produce both their incomes when a single parent applies for an exemption of school fees was laid to rest.

Below is a summary of the case;

Saffer, a divorced mother, was unable to pay, in full, her daughters High School fees and applied for an exemption. The form which she had to complete for an exemption required the combined annual gross income of both parents.

The Court gave attention to the South African Schools Act 84 of 1996, which states that a parent is liable to pay school fees unless, or to the extent that he or she has been exempted from payment. The court further looked at the formula for exemptions which is based on income and required the combined annual gross income of both parents to be supplied. The court considered whether this formula is unconstitutional and infringes the rights of single, separated or divorced parents to equal protection of the law or impinges on their dignity.

The Court concluded that fee-exemptions must be processed to enable single parents to have their applications assessed in relation to their own personal circumstances and not on combined income. The court declared that in dealing with Saffer’s fee exemption applications, the school and the governing body subjected her to repeated violations of her constitutional and statutory rights.

The Court made it clear that a school shall grant a conditional exemption to a parent who gives particulars for their total annual gross income; and does not give particulars of the total annual gross income of the other parent because the other parent has refused or failed to provide such particulars. The conditional exemption shall be a total exemption or a partial exemption to which the applicant would have been entitled if he or she were the only parent.

One must be mindful that there are conditions to these exemptions such as should a single parent have an increase in the income they must report this to the school and are liable to pay the short fall. Further, schools can still take legal action against the other parent for the balance of the school fees, ensuring non-custodial parents are held responsible where required.