Connor v Surrey County Council

To establish negligence, claimants have to show that their employer breached their duty of care to them, among other things. In Connor v Surrey County Council, the Court of Appeal said that the Council had been negligent in its duty of care to the head teacher when it failed to exercise a discretion under public law to replace the school’s governing body with an interim executive board.

Basic facts

Mrs Connor became head teacher at the Monument primary school in 1998, having been deputy head since 1994.

About 80 to 85 per cent of the pupils at the school were Muslim, with 50 per cent on the special needs register. The SATS results were, on the whole, good. There were no real problems at the school until a number of new governors - notably Paul Martin (a convert to Islam) and Mumtaz Saleem - joined the governing body in 2003.

Soon after their appointment, the new governors alleged that there was tension between the school and the local community. They subsequently made accusations of racism against two teachers and made written complaints about the head’s “confrontational disposition”. Two members of staff went off sick as a result.

Things then deteriorated so much that in June 2004 the head teacher - who said she was at her “wits end” - asked the local authority to intervene. It wrote a rather “anodyne” report which recommended mediation. After a petition of no-confidence in Mrs Connor “full of bile and malice” which accused staff of Islamophobia started circulating in June 2005, she started attending counselling and in September went off sick. She was diagnosed as gravely clinically depressed.

In January 2007 she made a claim of psychiatric injury against the local authority.

High Court decision

And the High Court found in her favour. It said that the Council was on notice from June 2004 that Mrs Connor was at risk of psychiatric injury and should have replaced the governing body of the school with an interim executive board under the Schools Standards and Framework Act (SSFA). Instead, the judge said that the Council simply initiated an inquiry, followed by mediation.

The judge said the Council also gave too much weight to the complaints of the two governors and “failed to keep them in check” because of its concern that a complaint of racism would be made against it. As a result, it lost sight of the adverse effects of their behaviour on the school, the staff and Mrs Connor and failed to give the headteacher the support she asked for.

The council appealed on the basis that the judge’s findings of negligence related to its public law functions and could not, therefore, support a claim for damages for personal injuries.

Court of Appeal decision

The Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the High Court and found the Council negligent in failing to establish an interim executive board of school governors.

It said that the Council should have exercised their public law duty under the Schools Standards and Framework Act in a way that fulfilled their private law duty of care to Mrs Connor, whilst making sure that it did not conflict with those duties.

It was clear that the Council had a statutory duty to deal with the serious breakdown in the management of the school affecting standards at the school under the SSFA. “The council's duty to correct that position, and their duty of care to the claimant, plainly marched together”

Given the judge’s findings, the Council would have been justified in starting procedures to set up an interim board by February 2005. “The constraints on the use of public law powers to serve an established private law duty of care were in my judgment well met”.