Court deems Local Education Authority not liable for assault of a teacher by a pupil

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Cunningham v Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council [2021] EWCA Civ 1719

The Court of Appeal has recently rejected an appeal from an assistant headteacher who claimed negligence against the local education authority (LEA) following two assaults by a pupil, resulting in a physical fracture, psychiatric distress, and retirement from teaching.

The facts:

The LEA employed the teacher to work in a special school for children with challenging behaviour. The pupil had assaulted the teacher in September and was temporarily excluded. In November, the pupil assaulted the teacher again, resulting in a fracture to the teacher’s face, psychiatric distress, and his retirement from teaching.

The teacher claimed the LEA was in breach of its duty of care to him in failing to carry out risk assessments, to provide any return-to-school interview or restorative justice programme upon the pupil’s return and this resulted in the second assault taking place.

The ruling:

The teacher’s claim was rejected in the first instance and the Court of Appeal rejected an appeal of the decision. A negligence claim involves three elements; a duty of care, breach of that duty and establishment that the breach caused the harm relevant to the claim. The Court reasoned the following:

  • The LEA did owe the teacher a duty of care to maintain a safe system of work. Any LEA that maintains schools has obligations to keep pupils and teachers safe.
  • The LEA breached the standard of care this duty required. Employers have a general requirement to carry out suitable and sufficient risk assessments to determine what reasonable steps should be taken to provide a safe system of work. The LEA, in this instance, had set out these requirements in written policies, which included return-to-school interviews and restorative justice programmes. Since they had not carried these policies out, the LEA had breached their duty of care.
  • The appeal failed on causation. Evidence showed that the pupil had received various interventions throughout his time at the school and none of these had prevented the second attack. The Court considered whether even if the LEA had correctly exercised its duty of care by offering the interview and programmes in its policies, the pupil would not have assaulted the teacher – it decided that while this was a possible outcome, it was not a probable

What does this mean?

It is important to note here that the Court did decide the LEA had breached the duty of care it had to its member of staff. Legal standards of causation have offered a lifeline to the LEA and prevented a potentially substantial claim for negligence.

It is clear that where legal requirements for those who maintain schools are in place, courts will hold schools accountable to the standards they set themselves in written policies. Although the LEA was not liable in this instance based on a failure to establish causation, this should not be seen as a fail-safe case on the ability of those who maintain schools to escape liability for pupil assaults on staff members.

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