Enormous bill for Sikh bangle case

17th April 2009 at 01:00
School must find Pounds 200k in costs and damages after losing High Court discrimination battle

The welsh school that lost last year's High Court battle over whether one of its pupils could wear a Sikh Kara bangle is preparing to pay the student damages believed to be of five figures.

Aberdare Girls' School is also reeling from the legal bill submitted by human rights organisation Liberty, which brought the case on behalf of 15-year-old Sarika Watkins-Singh, bringing the school's total potential costs to well over Pounds 200,000.

Liberty's bill is understood to be over Pounds 140,000 while the school's own legal costs are Pounds 76,000.

It is believed the school, which has an annual budget of Pounds 2.2 million, has paid around Pounds 60,000 of Liberty's costs, but is disputing the rest.

Ian Blake, the school's former chair of governors, said these costs had been met by reserve funds, but it is understood the school is seeking a contribution from the local authority. The TES was unable to contact the current chair, Peter Scott, to confirm this.

Ms Watkins-Singh had claimed that wearing the bangle was fundamental to her religious belief. She was excluded after refusing to take it off and spent some weeks being taught in isolation. The school denied racial discrimination, saying that wearing the bangle broke its uniform policy.

In his judgment following the three-day hearing last June, Mr Justice Silber said decision-makers at the school were "entitled to some sympathy as they could not have been instructed properly on the effect of the Race Relations Act and the Equality Act".

Rhondda Cynon Taf council stopped giving the school free legal advice when it refused to back down and opted to fight the case in the High Court. After that, the council said all matters relating to the court action were the responsibility of the governing body.

But since Liberty's costs have become known, a council spokeswoman said it had been "in communication with the school in relation to the financial matters surrounding this case".

Ms Watkins-Singh's mother, Sanita, said they were claiming damages because her daughter had suffered two years of disruption. "They will help towards her further education," she said.

Mr Blake said "the most disappointing thing" was that Ms Watkins-Singh had not returned to school. Instead, she has been receiving home tuition via the internet in seven GCSEs. Recently she passed her GCSE in Welsh and plans to go to college next year.

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