ConCourt says school can't expel kids over father's 'unacceptable behaviour'

The Constitutional Court has ruled that the sins of the father should not necessarily be laid upon the children, and found against an elite private school in Johannesburg that kicked two boys out over their father's "unacceptable" behaviour. Justice Leona Theron delivered the ruling on Wednesday and found the school's decision was unconstitutional "due to the failure to afford the [parents] an opportunity to be heard on the best interests of the boys". "In addition, the decision was unconstitutional as absent a fair process, it was self-evidently and objectively not in the best interests of [the boys] and, moreover, in...
The Constitutional Court has ruled that the sins of the father should not necessarily be laid upon the children, and found against an elite private school in Johannesburg that kicked two boys out over their father's "unacceptable" behaviour.

Justice Leona Theron delivered the ruling on Wednesday and found the school's decision was unconstitutional "due to the failure to afford the [parents] an opportunity to be heard on the best interests of the boys".

"In addition, the decision was unconstitutional as absent a fair process, it was self-evidently and objectively not in the best interests of [the boys] and, moreover, in violation of [the school's] obligation not to interfere with the boys' right to basic education, in the absence of any appropriate justification," she said.

The case found its way to the courts after the school, Pridwin Preparatory, decided to give effect to a 'termination-on-notice' clause in the contracts it had entered into with the boys' parents. This in the wake of what it called "a matrix of persistent harassment of Pridwin staff members".

In its court papers, Pridwin pointed to one incident in which the boys' father had "rudely and aggressively" accused the teacher in charge of tennis of being "incompetent, demoralising of the children and having no appreciation of the damage she was doing to the children's enthusiasm for tennis".

In their papers, however, the boys' parents claimed their children had been forced to leave "the only school they had ever known". Moreover, they charged, this was without so much as a hearing – "let alone a hearing on their best interests of the children".

Their case was dismissed in the High Court in Johannesburg as was an appeal in the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein.

By the time the boys' parents approached the Constitutional Court in a last-ditch bid for vindication last year, the boys had already changed schools and Pridwin argued that the matter was, as a result, moot.

But the court yesterday disagreed and found it was in the interests of justice for it to make a ruling.

"This is the first time that this court has had an opportunity squarely to address the rights of learners at independent schools," said Theron.

"It is also a rare opportunity, not because of the scarcity of rights violations in independent schools, but because of the difficulties and costs involved in litigating these matters to the appellate and apex levels. Most parents and learners in the applicants' situation would not have the resources to bring a matter before this court".

Ultimately, the court found that Pridwin bore a 'negative obligation' in terms of the constitution "not to impede the rights to a basic education that the children enjoyed pursuant to their enrollment at Pridwin".

"Although the state bears the duty to provide a basic education, the education offered by Pridwin also constitutes a basic education," Theron said.

"Accordingly, Pridwin, as an independent school, is required to provide its learners with a basic education that is not inferior to that offered at comparable public schools and not to diminish any child's enjoyment of their right to a basic education."

She said the effect of Pridwin's decision was that the boys had to leave the school.

"In this context, Pridwin was obliged to hear [their parents] at least, on whether cancellation was in the children's best interests, given the likely disruption to their education and wellbeing. These were children who had known no other school and had formed strong bonds with their teachers and friends," she went on.

The court declined to award the boys' parents costs, though, because of the "long shadow of the conduct that led them to this court".

"The conduct of the [parents] leading to the termination of the parent contract is sufficient reason to depart from the general principle that costs should follow the result," said Theron.

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