Decision overturned in favour of teacher in classroom assault case

Vaile v London Borough of Havering

(Court of Appeal 11 March 2011)

In July 2003 a 14-year-old boy known as X, at a school for children with learning difficulties, assaulted his teacher, Ms Vaile, causing multiple detached retina and psychological injuries. He stabbed her with a pencil and violently shook her head, after being told he had put his work in the wrong place. X had developed an emotional dependency on the claimant and had already assaulted her in June 2003. She sued the local education authority for negligence and failing to provide a safe system of work.

At trial, the judge found that appropriate procedures were not implemented for X since he had been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder in 2000. The schools risk assessment had recommended training teachers in ASD-appropriate techniques to minimise the risk of physical violence, but the claimant had not received this training, nor was she informed X had ASD.

However, the judge held, dismissing the claim, there was no breach of duty to the claimant; there was no cause for serious concern until the June assault, and an analysis of Xs behaviour would not necessarily have been completed in time to prevent the second assault.

The Court of Appeal overturned this decision, finding for the claimant. Proper implementation of procedures, together with a graduated response to the first assault, was likely to have prevented the second.

A claimant did not have to prove precisely how the school could have prevented the incident, when they could show the defendant was negligent and the loss was of a kind likely to arise from the negligence (applying the 2008 case of Drake v Harbour).

Although not clearly stated, the Court of Appeal has recognised a fairly onerous duty for schools to provide a safe system of working for teachers who teach troubled children. The fact the claimant did not have to prove that anything short of removing the child from her class (which she did not argue) would have prevented the second assault, highlights the Courts pragmatic approach to causation.

Defendants may, however, make the separate point that particular measures were not part of their duty, because of the low risk of injury form failing to implement them.