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Litigation and education

It has been recently reported that a student is bringing a lawsuit against Kings College Medical School on grounds of racial abuse. It is alleged that her fellow students perpetrated the abuse, but yet the focus of the action is the educational institution and their alleged failure to investigate, allegedly intentionally failing her and trying to stop her re-sitting the course.

This is not an isolated case. The number of students bringing actions against educational establishments has been ever growing and is continuing to attract publicity. Last year, a law student brought an action against a law college for allegedly failing to prepare her properly for the Legal Practice Course. She was unsuccessful in her action, but the case highlighted the fact that students may seek to bring lawsuits against educational establishments where they feel that they have not received the level of training as promised from the outset, whether that be as a result of a formal contract or in literature given prior to or on joining.

It may also be the content of courses that could prove contentious rather than the level of teaching given. Recently, a case against the London School of Economics (LSE) was thrown out for having no prospect of success. A student had sought to argue that the course “Gender, Media and Culture” was unfairly biased against men and contained a “male-blaming culture.” He also argued that facilities at the LSE were not favourable to men. The student failed to meet the barrier for a discrimination claim, but gained significant publicity throughout.

In 2004, a student brought an action against the University of Kent for failing to provide clarity as to what constituted plagiarism. He argued that at no point in his three-year degree had he been told about plagiarism, but that at the very end with graduation in sight, he had been reprimanded for it. The student eventually settled out of Court, and his case led to increased awareness amongst Universities about their plagiarism policies. Universities are now advised to make their policy on plagiarism clear and precise, and to ensure that it is communicated as from the very beginning of the course.

Whilst it is arguable that Universities may be most at risk due to the age of its students and their relative awareness of the availability of legal action, Schools remain open to legal challenge too.

In 2002, a pupil brought a lawsuit against Hurstpierpoint College for alleged inadequacies in the teaching of the Latin syllabus which she alleged, led to her obtaining a low grade and thereby putting into doubt a desired future career as a city lawyer. The pupil settled out of court for a five-figure sum and failings in teaching were admitted by the College. More recently, the father of a pupil at a school in Wakefield has indicated a willingness to bring an action for failing to guide his son over his Geography coursework, which has led to an inability to attend the University of his choice.

All of the above cases illustrate that both schools and universities must ensure that they make their contractual obligations very clear from the outset, and disclose all relevant policies to students and parents (where the education of minors is involved). Whilst some of the above students have been unsuccessful in their actions, all have achieved publicity in both the local and national media, which will have undoubtedly impinged on the reputations of the establishments concerned.

In addition, there needs to be further thought given to the duty of care owed by an educational establishment to its students, whether that be whilst they are in School or indeed on school trips.

Recently, a group of school children from Medway were unsuccessful in a claim for compensation as a result of being raped on a school trip to Belize. The Court found that there was no breach in the duty of care owned by the school, but the mere fact that it happened will be of major concern to the educational establishment involved. Much publicity was also given to the unfortunate death of a pupil, from Eton College, who was mauled to death by a Polar Bear whilst on a school trip near the Arctic Circle. Despite the decision of the Norwegian authorities not to bring a prosecution, they ruled that “additional risks” were taken and that the death “could have been prevented”, although no negligence was found.

Educational establishments must take care when planning school trips, as there is potential for action to be brought where there is a foreseeable risk of harm. Whilst it is important to have varied and educational school trips, it is arguable that Belize or the Arctic Circle may not be appropriate places to which to take school children. In any event, where a decision has been made with the consent of parents, schools should ensure that extreme caution is taken and that parents are fully aware of any dangers that may arise, with the necessary consent forms being signed and fully explained.

Schools and Universities are advised to ensure that clarity prevails, and that they are fully aware of their legal obligations. Schools should consult “A guide to the law for school governors, Jan 2010”, and Universities should ensure that they are familiar with existing equality and health and safety law and that all relevant policy and procedural documentation is up to date and made clear. With the increases in tuition fees set to come in, the level of angst amongst students will only rise and the their demands will surely increase, with every indiscretion however minor, the subject of scrutiny. It is hoped that if educational establishments are clear and well prepared; it will result in happier students and therefore happier Schools and Universities.

© RadcliffesLeBrasseur


This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur LLP accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.

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