Hard-sell lawyers draining budgets

16th May 2003 at 01:00
The compensation culture is growing fast and schools lose out even when cases are laughable, reports Anat Arkin.

Headteachers have accused ambulance-chasing law firms of using hard-sell techniques to persuade parents to take schools to court on the slightest pretext.

The growing use of litigation is causing a major drain on education budgets. And, if it is not a problem for all schools yet it soon will be, according to Mike Millman, head teacher of Priory primary school in Dudley.

"I believe this will become one of the most significant pressure points in education over the next five years," he told the National Association of Head Teachers' conference last week.

Mr Millman described how a pupil wearing unsuitable shoes had slipped in his school. Half-an-hour later the local authority's director of education received a telephone call from a legal service.

Another head, Hilary Sargeant from Walsall, said a solicitor had accused her of a breach of the Human Rights Act after she had kept a pupil in for detention.

The Institute of Actuaries estimates that local authorities are now dealing with around 500,000 legal claims a year - not all related to education - and paying out pound;200 million in damages or out-of-court settlements.

Overall, Britain's growing compensation culture is costing around pound;10 billion a year - a figure that is increasing at the rate of 15 per cent a year.

A regime carrying few risks for people bringing legal claims seems to be to blame. Conditional fee arrangements, introduced in 1995 allow lawyers to take on cases on a "no-win, no-fee" basis and have largely replaced Legal Aid, which was abolished for most personal injury claims three years ago.

Lawyers entering into these arrangements can charge a higher-than-normal fee if they win. If they lose, they get nothing. So-called "accident management" companies have sprung up to help people make compensation claims and put them in touch with lawyers willing to act on a no-win, no-fee basis.

Some of these companies also insure claimants against the risk of losing their cases and having to pay the defendant's legal costs. Winners can recover the costs of this insurance, along with their own legal fees, from the losing side.

But heads have everything to lose when parents or pupils take schools to court. Angeles Walford, head of Priory Church of England middle school in Wimbledon, south London, has just been through a case brought by a former pupil who claimed that the education system had not met his special needs for racially-motivated reasons.

A judge threw out the claim last month after Mrs Walford and her staff had gone through what she describes as 10 months of agony.

"If we had lost, I would have had no option other than to resign," she said.

A CASE OF OVERLOAD

IN the past 12 years Alan Stockley has had to fight four legal actions, including one brought by somebody claiming to have tripped over a drain that did not exist.

The most recent case involved a claim under the Disability Discrimination Act, which a tribunal threw out before it had even heard all the evidence.

But the hearing still took more than five hours, and Mr Stockley, head of Landywood primary school in Great Wyrley, Walsall, reckons that preparing for it took him at least a full working week. The worry and concern that the case caused him went on for a lot longer.

"A considerable amount of my time and energy was dragged away from doing the job I'm supposed to do," he said.

Mr Stockley supports the democratic right of people with genuine grievances to have their day in court.

But he believes that schools should receive compensation from those who make mischievous claims against them. He also wants to see local authorities contesting more cases.

"My experience has been that where a parent or a member of the public feels that they have any grounds at all to make a claim against a school, they will do that because they know that the local authority has not got the resources or time to invest in fighting every case," he said.

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