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FAILURE TO ENSURE GOOD GOVERNANCE AMOUNTS TO NEGLIGENCE

CONNOR V SURREY COUNTY COUNCIL (QUEENS BENCH DIVISION 19 MARCH 2009)

This was a claim in negligence against the Local Authority as an employer by the Head of a multi-faith primary school in Surrey.

The claimant had been appointed in 1998 and the school has improved steadily until the Governing Body of the school was joined by two new members in 2003. Their behaviour, which included verbally attacking the claimant at meetings and unfounded complaints of institutional racism and Islamophobia, rendered the Governing Body, in the Local Education Authoritys own words, dysfunctional by 2004.

The claimant, her staff, the Chair of Governors, other Governors and parents complained to the Local Educational Authority seeking support, but none was given. Instead, the LEA instigated a review of relationships, looking for any signs of racism; and found none.

The two Governors continued their behaviour with their own agenda and the LEA still did not respond, even though many central officers thought it should.

One of the two Governors made another unfounded complaint of institutional racism, being unsatisfied that the review report showed none. Instead of supporting the school, the LEA held a further enquiry. Several staff had stress related ill health, their absence supported by Occupational Health. Still the LEA did nothing other than pay lip-service to support for the school.

In 2005, the claimant took sick leave as she was clinically depressed and sued for her psychiatric injuries.

The Trial Judge detailed a catalogue of errors perpetrated upon the school and the claimant. He stated that the two Governors were imposing their own agenda regardless of the interests of the school and that the decision to hold a second enquiry was flawed. He also added that the main concern of the Local Authority was appeasing the two Governors rather than the welfare of the school and its staff.

This, the Judge found, constituted negligence on the part of Surrey Council and the Local Authority was found liable for the psychiatric injury caused to the claimant by its failure to intervene with the Governing Body.

This is a significant ruling for all Local Authority Risk Managers and Insurers. In future, a Local Authority will be found liable where it fails to act if the Governing Body becomes dysfunctional, as on this occasion, where the LEA failure to ensure good governance was found negligent to a culpable degree.

March 2009