Dyslexic woman loses on appeal

13th November 1998 at 00:00
A Pounds 45,000 award made against a local authority for failing to help a former pupil has been overturned. Karen Thornton reports.

A WOMAN who sued her former education authority for failing to diagnose her dyslexia is preparing to take her case to the House of Lords after the Court of Appeal overturned a previous ruling in her favour.

Pamela Phelps, 24, won Pounds 45,650 damages last year in a landmark ruling against the London borough of Hillingdon. But last week, three judges unanimously overturned that decision and took away the damages.

Ms Phelps's solicitor, Jack Rabinowicz, is hoping to take the case to the Lords, but it could be a year before a hearing. He said his client felt she had now been failed by the system twice.

Three years ago, another case involving a dyslexic - Mark Christmas, from Hampshire - established the principle that education professions do owe pupils a common law "duty of care".

Although his action was ultimately unsuccessful, it opened the way for other former pupils to bring cases. These have now been set back by the Court of Appeal decision, which ruled that dyslexia is not a congenital condition - and hence that failure to ameliorate its effects is not an injury.

The educational psychologist alleged to have failed to identify Ms Phelps's dyslexia did not owe a duty of care to her unless, in addition to performing her duty to her employers, she assumed personal responsibility to the then child.

Mr Rabinowicz said:"Bullying cases may not be affected by the Court of Appeal's decision. Certainly any other special needs case or a case arguing there has been bad education won't get off the ground now.

"We are talking about insurance cover in situations where the schools have seriously failed particular children. One hopes there won't be too many of them, but there does need to be some clarification of the law as to the circumstances in which one can claim and the amount of compensation.

"If something goes seriously wrong, shouldn't someone be responsible?" The appeal was brought by Municipal Mutual Insurance, Hillingdon's insurers. The company has around 200 similar cases waiting to come to court.

A company spokesman said: "While we have every sympathy with the problems associated with dyslexia, we never thought it appropriate for the issues involved in providing support for dyslexia sufferers to be pursued through the courts."

Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, believes a system of compensation in kind should be set up for former pupils, such as Ms Phelps.

"Why should an authority pay out that sort of money because they had some advice which subsequent research has now shown was erroneous? It was not neglect, it was done in good faith," he said.

"The way to solve this is not giving people financial compensation for what's gone wrong in the past, but giving them free support and maintenance for tuition in further education - so we can bring them up to where they should be."

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