Back to School: The Supreme Court and the Duty of Care to Pupils

Parents assume that the schools will look after their children at least as well or better than they do themselves. However, what if something untoward happens during the school day?

When children start school, there is understandable anxiety on the part of parents.

Parents, though, assume that the schools will look after their children at least as well or better than they do themselves.

However, what if something untoward happens during the school day?

Specifically, when the children are in the care of the school for educational activities can the school pass their duty of care to a third party.

This issue has now been clarified thanks to a new and significant ruling by the Supreme Court. Perhaps surprisingly, the point had never been considered before by the courts in England. In an age when bringing in outside contractors to provide support is a common practice, even in the education sector, it has assumed particular currency.

Five Supreme Court judges have now decided that the duty of care between a school and its pupils cannot be delegated to a third party. This means that the school can be liable for the negligence of chosen independent contractors which they use to take lessons.

This reflects the fact that the school has total control over what happens to the child during the school day while the child and its parents have none.

The ruling which the Supreme Court has handed down is the latest stage in a 13-year campaign for justice by a family whose daughter suffered serious brain injuries when she nearly drowned during a swimming lesson in the year 2000.

Annie Woodland was only 10 years old and a pupil at Whitmore Junior School in Basildon, Essex, when the incident happened.

During a hearing in July, the Supreme Court was told that Annie's school had used an independent contractor to give swimming lessons. It later emerged that the firm itself and several of the teachers present on the day in question were uninsured.

I and my colleagues in Pannone's Personal Injury department have been working on behalf of Annie and her parents since 2008.

It was wonderful to be able to tell them that - finally - after having five earlier judgements go against them, their determination had got them to a significant turning point in their case.

They recognise that the Supreme Court's decision is of importance for more than them too. They are keen that no other parent should have to go through what they and Annie have endured for more than a dozen years.

Even outside of education, it means that those organisations who assume a duty of care for vulnerable individuals, including residents in care homes, cannot delegate it to a third party and that they will have to bear responsibility if something dreadful occurs, as in Annie's case.

I don't believe that amounts to an unreasonable burden on schools or will prevent them from using independent contractors. They can still be protected if they check that those contractors who they employ are properly insured.

As momentous as the Supreme Court ruling is, the matter is not at an end for Annie and her parents. There is now likely to be a hearing at the High Court in Manchester next year to determine liability and decide an appropriate level of damages for the injuries which she suffered.

The Supreme Court decision is a victory in a major battle but is certainly not the end of the war.

It will not magically improve things for Annie. She has had her future changed dramatically. Her parents are now faced with taking care of her for the rest of their lives because of what happened.

They have at least drawn some comfort in knowing that the Supreme Court ruling gives a blanket of reassurance to parents of pupils at state schools across the country and should lead schools to review their procedures for outsourcing.


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