The Supreme Court of Appeal has ruled that JSE-listed print and manufacturing company Novus must continue to print and distribute millions of workbooks to 24,000 public schools across the country until March 2020, although the awarding of the estimated R3bn contract was deemed constitutionally invalid.

The court’s ruling is the latest in a three-year long legal battle triggered by the department of basic education’s decision in 2016 to award the country’s biggest printing and distribution contract to Novus’s Lebone Consortium. The contract, for printing and delivering workbooks for the 2018, 2019 and 2020 academic years, commenced in 2017 and was due to run to March 2020, with an option to extend it for an additional two years.

The legal action was launched by the losing bidder Caxton JV, which claimed its bid had been treated in an unequal manner when assessed on the “functionality” criteria. The bidders had to attain a minimum score of 80% for functionality to qualify for further consideration of issues such as pricing. The Caxton JV bid did not make the 80% cut-off mark.

“The unusually high level of the threshold was in recognition of the functional complexity of the tender,” said the SCA. The books are distributed twice a year in what the department of basic education describes as an “involved and intricate process”.

The decision to suspend the declaration of invalidity until March 2020 is reminiscent of the Constitutional Court decision in the Allpay case, which ruled that although the award of the social grant contract to Net1 was constitutionally invalid, the invalidity had to be suspended until alternative arrangements were made.

The  Supreme Court said the primary beneficiaries of the  department’s contract are  pupils and teachers.

“In my view, an order that will result in the disruption in the teaching and learning will not be just and equitable and will be counter-productive as it will result in hurting those who were meant to benefit from it.”

Provision of school workbooks should continue without disruption as education is a constitutional imperative, said the supreme court. .

Novus said it would study the implications of the judgment in detail before deciding on what action to take.

The ruling provides Novus, which is struggling to deal with the loss of a large portion of the Media24 printing business, with some clarity for the current financial year and financial 2020. Earlier in November Novus reported a 31% decline in headline earnings for the six months ended September as it battled to compensate for the loss of the high-margin Media24 work.