x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Dubai special needs pupils caught in middle of divorce dispute

Temporary closure of St Andrews school for children was over bitter dispute with his former wife over child maintenance, claims the fugitive former owner.

DUBAI // The former owner of the St Andrews school for children with special needs says he was forced to become a fugitive because of a "miscarriage of justice" in a Sharjah court.

In an email to The National, 60-year-old Christopher Reynolds claims a bitter dispute with his former wife over child maintenance was to blame for last week's temporary closure of the school.

Parents turned up at Al Safa campus on the first day of term on Wednesday to find the gates locked. A notice said the school would not be reopening "as the owner, Christopher Reynolds, has left the country and absconded with all the funds".

St Andrews has since been rescued by Dubai Education and is now operating normally.

Mr Reynolds, who continues to deny any wrongdoing, said a court in Sharjah had awarded his former wife, Sheena, child support of Dh25,000 a month for one of their five sons, who are aged between 9 and 28.

"I couldn't just borrow more money to pay an unjust debt to Sheena Reynolds," he wrote in his email.

He went on to allege: "Sheena has been directed by an Australian court order not to use Sharia but she ignored the order and used her influence to have me charged before a Sharjah court."

He said his ex-wife had received a Sharia court order that required him to hand over Dh550,000 in backdated child maintenance for their youngest son, even though the child was living with Mr Reynolds in Australia at the time.

"She was prevented in the Australian orders from using Sharia but went forum shopping to gain money from the UAE family courts," he said. "I haven't run away from the business but have been forced to become a fugitive because of a miscarriage of justice."

The National could not confirm Mr Reynolds's claims with courts in Sharjah or Australia.

After the school's closure, anxious parents attended a crisis meeting with school bosses.

Parents of the 53 pupils at St Andrews had all paid first-term fees of Dh19,250 for each child, and seven had paid the full year's amount.

One manager said Mr Reynolds had cleared out the school's accounts by cashing cheques for a total of Dh210,000. He said Mr Reynolds told him he had moved money out of the school's accounts to get his former wife "off his back".

Mr Reynolds said he returned to his native Australia, even though his passport was being held by the Sharjah court.

"He did assure me he was coming back," said the manager, who was involved in financial administration at St Andrews. "He did say he was trying to get a fake passport to leave the country. Whether that was done or not, there is no confirmation."

The Dh210,000 he withdrew, Mr Reynolds said, was part of the money he had invested in the business.

St Andrews was operated by the British Institute of Learning Development, of which Mr Reynolds was managing director.

Mrs Reynolds, who trained as an occupational therapist in Scotland, was formerly the institute's learning development director.

When the school closed, a complaint against Mr Reynolds was lodged with Dubai Police by one of the parents, with the intention that other parents would add their names to it.

This is now likely to be withdrawn as the new management is honouring the fee payments made by families.

"That complaint may now be rescinded and we'll ask the new management to file a complaint so it's a corporation rather than an individual exposed," said one parent.

Dubai Education declined to discuss the matter.

Mrs Reynolds was asked to comment but declined to do so.