Western Cape High Court hears argument on discrimination against divorced mothers when applying for school fee exemptions
On Wednesday, 25 May 2016, the Western Cape High Court will hear the matter of Michelle Saffer v Head of Department, Western Cape Education Department and Others (Case No 18775/13). The case highlights the discrimination that single mothers face when seeking to ensure access to schooling for their children.
Michelle Saffer is a divorced mother of three. In 2010, Ms Saffer applied for her daughter to be admitted to Fish Hoek High School. She was unable to pay the full amount of school fees, and sought a fee exemption.
Fish Hoek High School required the fee exemption form to be completed by both Ms Saffer and her ex-husband. The school adopted the view that Ms Saffer and her ex-husband are a ‘family unit’ and when applying for financial assistance the financial information of both biological parents must be taken into account.
Ms Saffer has custody over her children and has a difficult history with former spouse. Because of this, she regarded it as unreasonable, humiliating and discriminatory for the school to expect her exemption application to be conditional upon securing his co-operation.
As Ms Saffer put it in a letter to the school on 17 November 2011:
“I am in no way a family unit with my daughter’s biological father. I divorced him soon after she was born. Divorced is another way of saying: we are separated. I know very little about his life. I do not have the kind of relationship which would enable me to do financial calculations as a ‘family unit’.”
Despite appeals, Ms Saffer’s fee exemption applications were ultimately rejected.
The Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) is representing Ms Saffer. Ms Saffer’s case is an example of a systemic issue in the fee exemption process.
The existing Fee Exemption Regulations contain a formula for assessing whether an applicant qualifies for a partial or total exemption. One of the inputs into the formula is the combined annual gross income of the parents. However, it is often the case that single mothers bear the burden of paying school fees. In such cases it would be manifestly unfair to take into account both parents’ income. In addition, sometimes, as in Ms Saffer’s case, a single parent will be unable to access information about their former spouse’s finances, rendering it procedurally unfair for the combined income requirement to create a barrier to a decision to grant a fee exemption.
On 25 May 2016, the court will hear an application for an order declaring that the school and Department’s approach to fee exemption applications violates Ms Saffer’s rights to dignity and equal protection of the law. The EELC will also ask the court to declare the Fee Exemptions Regulations’ requirement to furnish the combined annual gross income of the parents inconsistent with the Constitution and invalid, insofar as it may apply to a mother seeking a fee exemption in Ms Saffer’s position.
For more information, please contact
Sherylle Dass – Senior Attorney
Chandre Stuurman – Junior Attorney