Hard lessons: Why private school refused to refund parents’ deposit
National Consumer Commission grapples with the issue and both sides of the argument have fair points
Under what circumstances can a parent qualify for a full refund of a deposit paid to a private school towards their child’s fees?
This was the question a three-member consumer protection tribunal had to grapple with this week after parents lodged a complaint against HeronBridge College in Johannesburg for refusing to refund their deposit.
Shaun and Natalie Cochrane, now living in Australia, informed the National Consumer Commission (NCC) in August 2016 that the college refused to refund a deposit of R40,808 they paid when they enrolled their two children in January 2011.
They asked the tribunal to secure an order forcing the college to refund their full deposit. The college offered a 25% ex gratia refund which the Cochranes refused.
An inspector employed by the NCC, Velaphi Mabuza, investigated Shaun Cochrane’s complaint. In his report he wrote that, according to Cochrane, the contract stated that the deposits were supposed to be refunded to him upon completion of the two children’s final term at the end of 2015.
Mabuza said in September 2015, at beginning of the third school term, Cochrane’s wife, Natalie, gave notice to her child’s class teacher that she and her husband had been granted visas and that her family would therefore be emigrating to Australia.
On December 4 2015 Shaun Cochrane received an offer of employment in Australia and had to start in February 2016.
“On December 7 he informed the school of his family’s imminent move to Australia. He believes that he had substantially complied with the notice required,” Mabuza stated.
According to the enrolment contract, a deposit is payable to secure a place at the college.
On December 7 2015, the Cochranes informed the college that their two children would be leaving.
HeronBridge College replied that because a full term’s notice had not been given they were entitled to charge the full term's fees.
This year’s fee for grades 10-12, if paid over 10 months, was R105,020.
Joseph Selolo, the NCC’s director of prosecutions, told the tribunal that the contract entered into by the complainant and the college was a fixed term contract regulated by the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) and that the notice period required was 20 days.
“It is our submission that the actual notice that was given by the complainant was sufficient in terms of the CPA. It [the deposit] must be refunded in its entirety because the specific term had been completed.”
Timothy Irving, executive head of HeronBridge College, denied in his answering affidavit that the contract was for a fixed period of time. He said the contract was entered into when a child was first enrolled at the college and remained in place until the child stopped attending classes.
“It is common cause that the notice given by the Cochranes was late,” wrote Irving. It had to be given by September 11 2015, but was only given in December.
“The Cochranes were not and are not contractually entitled to the return of the deposit,” he said.
“The absence of even one child from a class in the college in any year can have a significant impact on the respondent’s [the college’s] profit margin and its ability to render services. If the college is under capacity and revenue is too low, this jeopardises the quality of services for all children,” wrote Irving.
“The respondent would have refunded the Cochranes’ deposit had it been able not only to replace the two children seamlessly but also to achieve the ideal capacity after they were withdrawn from the college.”
Kevin Iles, an advocate who represented HeronBridge College at the tribunal, said: “My client is resistant [to paying] because of the consequences it would have for all the learners and parents at the school.”
The presiding officer, Nomfundo Maseti, who was assisted by two panel members, reserved judgement.