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    NEGLIGENCE – DAMAGES – EDUCATION – LOCAL GOVERNMENT – PERSONAL INJURY

    BREACH OF DUTY OF CARE : DAMAGES : HEAD TEACHERS : LOCAL EDUCATION AUTHORITIES : LOCAL GOVERNMENT : MENTAL DISORDER : PSYCHIATRIC HARM : SCHOOL GOVERNORS : STRESS : LOCAL EDUCATION AUTHORITY’S FAILURE TO INVESTIGATE GOVERNING BODY : CONDUCT OF MEMBERS OF GOVERNING BODY CAUSING PSYCHIATRIC ILLNESS

    A local education authority were liable for psychiatric injury caused to a former head teacher by its failure to intervene with the governing body of the school where the conduct of members of that body made persistent complaints of racism and Islamophobia and subjected the head teacher to offensive verbal abuse.

    The claimant former employee (C) claimed damages for psychiatric injury arising out of her employment by the defendant local education authority as a head teacher. C had been head teacher of a maintained community school since 1998. The school was multi-cultural and most of the pupils were Muslim. As head teacher she was a member of the governing body. In 2003 new members joined the body including a parent (M) and the local authority’s nominated governor (S), both of whom were Muslims. From the outset M expressed concerns about the future of the school and C felt intimidated and was worried for the future. M and S appeared to have an agenda to convert the school to an Islamic faith school. Both sought to dominate the agenda at meetings and S’s approach extended to offensive verbal attacks. M frequently sought information from C, persistently complained until he got his way and made complaints of racism and Islamophobia. The problems had come to the attention of the local authority in 2003 by the leader of governor services, who was employed by the local authority. Concerns were expressed about the effect of S and M’s behaviour on C. Requests had also been made by C and the chairman of the body that the local authority should investigate the body. A review of the body came to the conclusion that it was dysfunctional. The local authority’s director of schools then arranged for mediation. M was eventually removed from the body but he then stirred up disaffection in the local community and made a complaint to the local authority of institutional racism within the school and an independent investigation was ordered. In September 2005 C was signed off of work with stress and depression which she attributed to her work environment and the perceived lack of support by her employer. She subsequently issued proceedings.

    HELD: (1) Until 2003 the school had done very well under C’s leadership. The governing body had operated successfully and there were well established and positive links with the local community, including the local Muslim community. From late 2003 until the summer of 2005 the body was dysfunctional as a result of the conduct of M and S. They had sought to monopolise meetings with a view to imposing their own agenda and were prepared to do so regardless of the interests of the school and anyone else who resisted that agenda. (2) To establish liability C had to prove that the possibility of psychiatric injury was foreseeable. On the evidence there were warning signs that C was stressed and in June 2004 concern was expressed of the effect of S and M on C’s health. From that time the local authority ought to have considered C as someone in a vulnerable position, whose health was at risk and, therefore, called for more than usual consideration. The local authority should have foreseen that from June 2004 onwards that C was at risk of psychiatric injury from stress and it owed C a duty not to expose her to unreasonable risk of psychiatric injury. (3) The local authority had breached its duty of care to C. Following the review the governing body remained dysfunctional. M rejected the review and S continued to pursue his cause. No steps were taken by the local authority to exercise its powers of intervention. The authority should have issued a formal warning no later than the end of February 2005, which would have enabled a board to be set up by May at the latest. The knowledge that that was going to happen would very likely have stalled further action by the body with the result that it would not have removed M, or, alternatively, their powers to do so would have been removed. That would have prevented the backlash that had resulted. Taking over the body would have removed the influence of M and S, demonstrated that the local authority was supporting the school and C and helped alleviate the stress and its harmful consequences. The local authority had failed to provide C with the support she needed. The decision to set up an inquiry to deal with M’s complaint of racism and Islamophobia and extending the inquiry’s scope to include the school’s relations with the community were made in complete disregard of the duty of care owed to C. It was the duty of the local authority to put a stop to the problems and was in their power to do so. (4) C had to be compensated for a severe depressive episode associated with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which had prevented her from pursuing her teaching career. Damages in the sum of £387,778.22 were awarded which included the sum of £25,000 for pain, suffering and loss of amenity.

    Judgment for claimant

     

    ERICA JOYCE CONNOR v SURREY COUNTY COUNCIL (2009)

    QBD (Leighton Williams QC) 19/3/2009

    Lawtel: 30.03.09