In Loco Scholam: Analysing Woodford v. Essex County Council (and others) [2013] UKSC 66

Link to the full Supreme Court Judgment

Glancing quickly at the 13yrs since the initial swimming accident, you may be forgiven for thinking that Woodford v. Essex CC contains more history, politics, drama and civics than physical education. Indeed, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that despite Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling, 4 other trials and 2 Health & Safety Executive reports, the case is still only in its initial stages! However delve a little deeper and this somewhat tangled web belies the case’s considerable importance for determining and apportioning negligence liability through primary or non-delegable duties.

The infographic below may help clarify the current litigation (Click here to download as a PDF version): Woodlands

What happened?

At its core, the case concerns ten-year old Annie Woodland, who suffered a serious hypoxic brain injury while taking part in a school swimming lesson on 5th July 2000.  As part of their National Curriculum obligations, Whitmore Junior School had contracted with Beryl Stopford (trading as Direct Swimming Services) to provide swimming lessons for their pupils at the local pool in Essex. Mrs Stopford in turn assigned two employees to deliver the lesson and be present as a lifeguard. The class was streamed into two groups, with the claimant (Annie) swimming with the more experienced group from the deep end into the shallows. Tragically, during the lesson, the claimant got into trouble and was found “hanging vertically in the pool” and in need of resuscitation.

The case arises because the exact nature of who found her and the quality of the supervision leading up to this point has yet to be determined by the courts and as such is fiercely disputed by the parties. In the meantime, both parties are arguing about what duties are owed rather than establishing the facts.

  1. Round1 (Claimant 0 – Defendant 1): Originally in 2007, the solicitors for the 1st Defendant – The Swimming Teachers Association (the trade body that provided insurance for both Mrs Stopford and Ms Maxwell) admitted full liability for the incident. However in 2009, when new solicitors (Fishburns) took over the case, Fishburns immediately retracted this admission, leading to litigation on whether an admission of liability pursuant to CPR r.14.1A(5) could be retracted? (the Court of Appeal subsequently held it could, particularly in the interests of justice, and the CA judgment contains a good summary and analysis of the factors that would need to be considered).
  2. Round2 (1-1): Perhaps emboldened by this conclusion, Essex County Council tried to argue that responsibility lay solely with the STA for the alleged negligence, as there was no direct vicarious or employment relationship between the school and the ‘independent contractors’ (Mrs Stopford, Ms Maxwell and Mrs Burlinson). By contrast, the claimant argued that the school had a ‘non-delegable’ duty of care towards its pupils.

 

Non-Delegable duties 

Both the High Court (Langstaff, J) and the majority of the Court of Appeal (Tomlinson & Kitchin LJJ, Laws LJ dissenting) stated that the education authority did not owe a ‘non-delegable’ duty, indeed the Court of Appeal suggested that they were:

“precluded from recognising the non-delegable duty of care for which the Appellant has argued on this appeal….[given] the imposition of such a duty would have significant implications not just for all education authorities but also for all those who operate schools and hospitals…” [33]

The recent decision of the Supreme Court overrules this and Lord Sumption (giving the leading opinion) summarises non-delegable duties at [23] as applying where:

  1. The claimant is especially vulnerable and/or dependent on the protection of the defendant against the risk of injury

  2. There is an antecedent relationship between the claimant and the defendant, independent of the negligent act or omission itself, which places the claimant in the actual custody, charge or care of the defendant, from which it is possible to impute to the defendant the assumption of a positive duty to protect the claimant from harm, and not just a duty to refrain from conduct which will foreseeably damage the claimant. It is characteristic of such relationships that they involve an element of control over the claimant, which varies in intensity from one situation to another, but is clearly very substantial in the case of schoolchildren.

  3. The claimant has no control over how the defendant chooses to perform these obligations, i.e. whether personally or through employees or through third parties

  4. The defendant has delegated to a third party some function which is an integral part of the positive duty which he has assumed towards the claimant; and the third party is exercising, for the purpose of the function thus delegated to him, the defendant’s custody or care of the claimant and the element of control that goes with it.

  5. The third party has been negligent not in some collateral respect but in the performance of the very function assumed by the defendant and delegated by the defendant to him.

 

Implications

While Lord Sumption may have queried that:

“It must be very doubtful whether deciding such a point on the pleadings was really in the interests of these parties or of the efficient conduct of their litigation.” [2]

echoing Lord Justice Tomlinson’s earlier perceptive comments in the Court of Appeal that:

“If it is, the authority’s admission that the class attended for a swimming lesson at the pool under the control and supervision of the Second Defendant’s servants or agents may not tell the whole story. There would be scope for enquiry as to the extent to which the class in such circumstances remained in the care of the teacher from the school. The notion that the authority by its employees had no control over the manner in which the swimming lesson was conducted or supervised may be wholly unreal. The circumstances may be such that it is quite unnecessary to be searching for a non-delegable duty in order to impose liability upon the authority.” [36, CA]

The judgement does have important policy implications for schools and other providers. Interestingly, it appears that in practical terms, the law has finally caught up with what teachers and education professionals have been preaching for years, namely that schools should be ultimately responsible for the safety of pupils.

Indeed, guidance from AfPE (Safe Practice & Physical Education, (2012) [3.4.26]) in relation to the earlier CA decision stated that the (2012) judgment,

“does not alter a school’s continuous duty of care to students where activities take place on site, whether delivered by a teacher or support staff, such as a visiting coach, because the workforce regulations demand that the coach is managed by the teacher so the teacher maintains responsibility even though someone else teaches the class.”

What is now clear from the Supreme Court judgment is that schools utilising specialist coaches or support staff to deliver aspects of the National curriculum may retain a liability that goes beyond performing initial recruitment and suitability checks for the role, and is akin to a ‘non-delegable’ duty to protect the safety of the pupils regardless of whether any contractual or employment relationship existed with the provider. Importantly, this duty extends to activities performed off-site, by non-teachers, unsupervised by any school staff, as long as the purpose of the activity can explicitly be linked to traditional school or national curriculum obligations.

Lady Hale argued at [42] that this was not as big a policy change as it might look:

“large organisations may well outsource their responsibilities to much poorer and un- or under-insured contractors. Nor can it be an objection that there may be more than one tortfeasor to hold liable.”

In making this statement, Lady Hale is explicitly countermanding Lord Justice Tomlinson’s suggestion from the CA judgment that:

“The days are long gone when we ignored the incidence of indemnity insurance. One would expect the costs charged to the Fourth Defendant [Essex CC] for the service provided by the Second Defendant [Beryl Stopford] to reflect the cost of the Second Defendant arranging adequate insurance. The only purpose of the present appeal is to ensure that liability is brought home to a defendant with sufficient resources to meet the possible award.” [34, CA]

Lady Hale’s approach seems much more legally justifiable and more accurately reflects the purpose rather than the delivery mechanism of the activity. Lady Hale also suggests that this reasoning is more likely to be accepted by “the man on the underground” [29] (it would seem that riding on omnibuses is so 20th century!)

That said, Lord Sumption was careful to limit the extent of this liability, suggesting at [25(3)] that schools:

“Are liable for the negligence of independent contractors only if and so far as the latter are performing functions which the school has assumed for itself a duty to perform, generally in school hours and on school premises (or at other times or places where the school may carry out its educational functions…..They will not be liable for the defaults of independent contractors providing extra-curricular activities outside of school hours, such as school trips in the holidays. Nor will they be liable for the negligence of those to whom no control over the child has been delegated, such as bus drivers or the theatres, zoos or museums to which children may be taken by school staff in school hours…”

Of all the areas of the judgement, this latter section gives the most potential for future litigation, as potential claimants will no doubt argue that an educational field-trip during the school day could be equated to a core function. Whether it will or not, is ultimately a question of fact, (and possibly irrelevant given the presumed concurrent vicarious liability of school staff accompanying the pupils). In theory at least though, this principle is an expansion of liability that education and healthcare providers would be well advised to note.

In conclusion, the Courts may have rightly disregarded the oft-cited loco parentis as unhelpful, given the very different responsibilities of parents and schools, however I would suggest the legacy of the Supreme Court judgment is to create a new maxim: in loco scholam (in place of the school), let’s see if that catches on……

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About Kris

Associate Professor in Sports Law, Staffordshire University; British Gymnastics Senior Coach

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