Civil High Court Set to Give Judgment On Notice

The one-day hearing was held yesterday before Justice Brito Mutunayagam.
25 Jun 2019 14:03
Civil High Court Set to Give Judgment On Notice
Catholic Church of Fiji Archbishop Peter Loy Chong (second from left), with members of the SDA Church in Fiji outside High Court in Suva on June 24, 2019. Photo: Ashna Kumar

The Civil High Court in Suva will give a judgment on notice in a matter in which the Attorney-General’s Chambers filed a case against a faith-based school and the manner in which it planned to close.

This was because the operators of Vatuvonu Adventist College, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said it was against the Open Merit Recruitment System (OMRS) instituted by the Government and wanted a member of the faith to be head of the school.

The one-day hearing was held yesterday before Justice Brito Mutunayagam.

The plaintiff’s case

Lawyer representing the A-G’s Chambers Bhavna Narayan told the court that the Ministry of Education had the authority to make appointments for school heads.

Ms Narayan told the court that the Vatuvonu SDA College was aided by the ministry (i.e receiving the free education grant) and, therefore, the Permanent Secretary had the powers to appoint the heads of the school.

In April, the High Court issued an order to prevent the shutdown of the school because the college’s operators were doing it without sanction from the Permanent Secretary of Education.

She told the court that a joint press release was made by the Minister for Education and the Archbishop of the Catholic Church after a consultation was conducted between the minister and all faith-based organisations including Nemani Tausere, who was in the consultation representing the SDA Church.

Ms Narayan said Vatuvonu SDA College had 21 teachers at the school, who were not of the SDA faith, and were employed by the ministry with salaries paid by the ministry.

She told the court that the SDA Church was not concerned about the paramount interest (students and teachers) and whether the parents of those students would be able to afford the fees if the school was privatised.

Ms Narayan told the court that the lease of the land on which the school was located on had expired in 2009 and was yet to be renewed by the church.

She also told the court that parents of students studying at the college voiced their concerns via a written petition to the Prime Minister’s Office because the students’ education would be affected by the hasty decision made by the church to either privatise the school or close it.

She told the court that the State, through the ministry, had the duty to protect the interest of the students and their education

The defendent’s case

Defence lawyer David Bennett QC and Andrew Tokley QC, in their submission, told the court that the plaintiff (A-G’s Chambers) had made submissions without any evidence that the position of the acting principal was a public office.

Mr Bennett told the court that the right to appointments belonged to the religious community and faith-based organisations to manage the school.

He told the court that there was not specific power upon the permanent secretary to appoint the principal or acting principal or the management committee of a faith-based school.

Mr Bennett also told the court that faith-based organisations had the right to manage and appoint teachers and the heads of the schools.

Lawyers representing the plaintiff (A-G’s Chambers) were Ms Narayan, Sangeeta Chand and Ofa Solimailagi.

Lawyers representing the defendants (the College and registered trustees for the SDA Church in Fiji) were Mr Bennett, Mr Tokley, William Clarke and Mareta TikoiSuva.

Edited by Epineri Vula

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