The Court of Appeal has recently made its decision in the case of Cunningham v Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council.
The claimant in the case was a teacher at a pupil referral unit. A pupil at the school had previously assaulted the teacher, for which the pupil had been suspended. A second assault saw the pupil punch the teacher in the face, resulting in a fractured cheekbone and psychiatric injury.
The teacher retired from teaching following the second incident and brought a claim against the local education authority that ran the school.
The teacher alleged that the local education authority was negligent and that it had breached the duty of care that it owed him.
Prior to the second assault, the pupil’s behaviour had deteriorated and the basis of the teacher’s claim was that the school had failed to carry out risk assessments or to arrange a return to school interview or a restorative justice meeting following the first assault, which were requirements under the school’s policies.
The allegation was that this failure had resulted in the second assault taking place.
The High Court found in the school’s favour, and the teacher issued an appeal to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal accepted that a duty of care was owed to the teacher and that he was entitled to a safe workplace. The Court also accepted that this duty of care had been breached when the school failed to carry out risk assessments or to follow its own policies by arranging a return to school interview or restorative justice meeting. However, the Court refused to accept that the school’s breach had probably caused the second assault – it was possible, but not probable.
The Court considered the circumstances of the assault and the extensive interventions that had been made to support the pupil, and it determined that it was not able to say that on the balance of probabilities it had been the lack of a risk assessment or return to school interview or restorative justice meeting that had caused the attack. The teacher’s appeal was therefore dismissed.
Our key takeaway from this case
Whilst this decision is somewhat reassuring for schools, it should also serve as a reminder of the importance of following policies and procedures.
Schools should take care to ensure that all incidents are properly followed up, that detailed risk assessments are carried out and that clear documentation is in place to evidence the justification and rationale behind decision-making.
How Moore Barlow can help
Creating a safe environment for staff in the face of challenging pupil behaviour requires both understanding of a school’s legal obligations and careful professional judgment. If at all unsure, do seek legal advice.