Ruling for dyslexic makes legal history

Education and legal history was made in the High Court this week when a London borough was told it had provided a substandard education and must pay thousands of pounds in damages.

An award of Pounds 45,651 against Hillingdon education authority follows the first successful attempt to sue the school system for its educational failings. Hundreds of new cases are likely to follow.

Pamela Phelps, now 23, told the High Court that her life chances had been damaged because her school failed to identify and deal with her dyslexia. At the age of 10 she was four years behind in reading and writing, but nobody discovered why.

Her barrister, Cherie Booth QC, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair, said that the authority had "failed to take reasonable steps to overcome her learning problems".

Once she left school, Ms Phelps was obliged to take menial jobs. She is now on a course to help her tackle her dyslexia and is aiming to become a computer programmer.

Hillingdon claimed that it was unfair to impose a duty of care on the council as it had to teach a large number of students of differing abilities.

But the judge, Mr Justice Garland, awarded Ms Phelps Pounds 6,566 in special damages to cover the cost of additional educational courses; Pounds 12, 500 for the lost chances of getting better employment; Pounds 25,000 for the loss of future earnings; plus interest.

A spokesman for Hillingdon said: "The council is disappointed that the court has found in favour of Pamela Phelps. We are currently considering the outcome with our insurers. As yet we have not reached a decision on an appeal."

The court's ruling finds that the educational psychologist who was responsible for Pamela had behaved unreasonably in failing to diagnose dyslexia. The judge does not blame the school for taking her advice, but he holds Hillingdon to account as her employer.

However, after the ruling, Ms Phelps' lawyer, Jack Rabinowicz, insisted that schools should in fact carry a major responsibility for ensuring that a child's special needs are met.

Even if, as predicted, there is a rush of similar cases, it will be hard to prove that LEAs are liable for damages. Pupils and former pupils will have to prove not simply that an authority is at fault, but that it has behaved quite unreasonably. Pupils will also have to demonstrate that they have been damaged by their educational treatment.

As if to prove the point, a very similar case failed this week. Another dyslexic, 23-year-old Mark Christmas, had been claiming damages from Hampshire County Council, again for allegedly failing to pick up his condition.

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