Maharashtra government has no authority to put additional restrictions on fee collection: Schools to Bombay HC

The Bombay high court (HC), while hearing a bunch of petitions filed by private educational institutions, was informed that the May 8, 2020 government resolution (GR) which restrained them from collecting fees for the academic year 2020-21 was not valid as the state was acting beyond its authority and the restriction put by the GR had no statutory authority or backing. The schools argued that as the Fee Regulation Act, 2011 had sufficient restrictions to deter private schools from overcharging students and parents, the government was trying to put additional restrictions through the GR which violated their constitutional rights, and hence, the GR should be set aside.

The division bench of chief justice Dipankar Datta and justice Girish Kulkarni, while hearing four petitions filed by private educational institutions, was informed by senior counsel Dr Milind Sathe who represented an institution along with advocates Prateek Seksaria and Saket Mone, that they had been aggrieved by the May 8 GR and hence they had approached the HC.

While making submissions, Dr Sathe submitted that the state had approached the Supreme Court (SC) after the HC had stayed the implementation of the GR, but the Apex court had directed the matter to be heard again by the HC.

Dr Sathe added that private schools were regulated by a law which put reasonable restrictions on them from overcharging students as well as laid down the procedure for increasing fees which the schools had been following. However, in light of the lockdown and the pandemic situation, the state had issued the GR by invoking the Fee Regulation Act, the Disaster Management Act and the Epidemic Diseases Act. Dr Sathe submitted that as the private schools were already governed by the Fee Regulation Act, the state could not supersede it through a GR which had no statutory authority or backing.

“The Act has already put reasonable restrictions on private schools and any additional restrictions through a GR would violate the constitutional rights of the schools to carry out their vocation,” said Dr Sathe.

After hearing the submissions, the court wanted clarity from Dr Sathe regarding the sections of the Disaster Management Act invoked by the state in the GR. The court sought to know what was the meaning of ‘disaster’ as mentioned in section 38 of the Act read with section 2 (E) of the Act and why the state could not invoke the same in the pandemic situation. The court asked Dr Sathe to respond by Thursday and said that it would complete hearing on the petitions.

The GR had restrained private school from charging fees or increasing fees for the academic year 2020-21 and had also restrained the schools from forcing students and parents to pay fees for services which were not provided. The schools had petitioned the HC challenging the GR. After the HC had stayed the implementation of the GR, the state approached the SC, but the top court reverted the petition to HC. Pursuant to the SC directions, the HC has taken up the petitions for final hearing.

Senior counsels advocate P Samdani and Harish Salve will also be forwarding arguments for other schools on Thursday. Senior advocate Anil Anturkar will then respond for the state justifying the restrictions in the GR.

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