Did the school have duty of care to their pupil victim?

Two boys agreed to fight each other on the school tennis courts at the end of the school day. Tension had built up during the day. There was a racial element to the tension involving white and Asian gangs at the school.

The victim had made it clear that this was to be a one-on-one fight but, unknown to him, the other boy telephoned relatives and friends to turn up and help him. The victim was beaten with claw hammers and the like by several adult acquaintances who had arrived on the tennis courts at the time the fight was to happen. He suffered a skull fracture.

The Judge was prepared to accept in principle that it may be fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care on the school in these circumstances as per the test in Caparo -v- Dickman.

So, if the school knew that the hammer wielding man was on his way to school to attack their pupil they would have a duty towards the pupil, which formed an exception to the common law principle that no one has a duty to intervene voluntarily with the deliberate harmful actions of a third party.

The claimant said this duty had been breached in that there should have been a perimeter fence around the playground/tennis court to prevent the public coming straight onto school premises.

This would have cost £150,000. The school had prioritised replacing some old classrooms in their annual budget, rather than putting up fences, which they did after the accident.

The Judge accepted that the school had not perceived any great risk of danger arising from the failure to erect a fence and therefore there was no breach of duty of care in that regard.

The claimant also said there were insufficient staff to supervise the exits at the end of the school day. This allegation fell down on causation. The Judge found as common sense that the two boys would choose an area to fight where there were no supervisors. That is why they went to the tennis court.

The claimant alleged the school had failed in disciplinary procedures to clamp down on violence and to ban mobile phones at schools. The Judge found it was not reasonably foreseeable that the assailant would summon assistance from the public and no disciplinary policy would have stopped this and the purpose of the ban on mobile phones was not to prevent such an unlikely scenario.

The claimant had alleged there were ineffective race discrimination policies. They argued the statutory obligation to have effective racial equality policies under the Race Relations Act 1976 should be used to inform the nature of the duty of care which the defendant owed to the claimant at common law. Clearly a breach of those policies did not give rise to civil liability . One analysis of this judgment by DJ Gerlis, draws an analogy with pleading breaches of the Highway Code in road traffic cases.

The Judge accepted that there may have been a racial element to the assault but found that any alleged failure to implement racial equality did not create a specific duty to pupils at the school nor had there been a failing in those policies. Nor, in causation terms, was there evidence that any such policy would have changed the mindset and attitudes of the attackers.

The Judge described the argument under the European Commission of Human Rights Act that the victim should be protected from “degrading treatment” as hopeless. The offending authority in such cases would have to know that a person was in imminent danger of such treatment.

The claim failed. Related claims by the family who had witnessed his bloodied state after the assault also therefore failed.

Webster -v- Ridgeway Foundation School, High Court QBD, 5/2/2010