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Amy Laver

Posted 12 October 2013
by Amy Laver

Duty of care to vulnerable people reinforced

On 23 October, the Supreme Court gave a landmark ruling that reasserts the duty of care owed by a local authority school to its pupils. This will affect not only the state education sector but any organisation that is responsible for the care of vulnerable and dependant individuals, including prisoners.

The Court heard that 10 year old Annie Woodland had suffered a serious brain injury after nearly drowning whilst attending a school swimming lesson at a local pool. A key feature was that the swimming instructor and lifeguard were not employed by the school but independently contracted, so liability for the actions of school staff did not arise. But the lesson took place during school hours when the school has ‘control’ of the pupil.

The Supreme Court has overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision that the school had delegated its duty of care and so could not be held responsible for the contractor’s negligence. In performing its own educational function (i.e. lessons as part of the national curriculum), a school’s duty of care cannot be delegated to a third party. The school itself was not at fault, but it was ‘wholly reasonable that the school should be answerable for the careful exercise of its control of the delegate’.

The key point here is that the school was carrying out the very function that it existed for. It would not have been liable, the Court said, for a contractor’s negligence in delivering extra-curricular activities out of school hours; nor, curiously, for the negligence of a bus driver during a school hours trip to a zoo, where the school does not give up control of the child since a teacher is on board. So the Court took the view that its decision does not put an unreasonable burden on schools, headteachers or governors. It is nonetheless a step away from previous decisions.

In light of this, maintained schools (and any other organisations that are responsible for dependant individuals) should check their insurance policies and have robust contracts in place with independent contractors, demanding that they too have proper insurance.

Further advice

For further advice please contact one of our specialists Richard King or Amy Laver at: Broadwalk House, Southernhay West, Exeter EX1 1UA. Call: 01392 207020 or email:

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About the author

Amy Laver

Amy Laver

Associate and Solicitor

An associate in the corporate and charities & social enterprises team