Negligence ruling gives strength to professionals

10th October 1997 at 01:00
The High Court ruling that Hillingdon education authority was negligent when one of its educational psychologists failed to diagnose a child's dyslexia is of great importance, not just to children with special educational needs but to all local authority employees - teachers, psychologists and anyone asked for professional advice on a child's needs.

The case is particularly encouraging for anyone who has found it difficult to put their professional view, in the face of counter arguments based on money.

Though there was no suggestion in the Hillingdon case that pressure had been applied to the psychologist, we know from our case work that in some local authorities professionals are routinely put under pressure to trim their reports so that they describe not the child's needs but whatever is available locally.

Resisting such pressure can be difficult, especially when jobs are on the line.

This case will make resistance easier. In 1995 the House of Lords established that educational professionals had a common law duty of care to their clients: if individual professionals failed to exercise care and reasonable skills, they and, vicariously, their employers could find themselves in court. But once in court would such cases succeed? Pamela Phelps's case has shown that some will and that the duty-of-care ruling can have real teeth.

We do not believe the floodgates will open, as some local authority officers have claimed. Each case will be viewed on its facts, and, as your report showed, not all claims will succeed.

But teachers and others will be able to point to this case as a reason why they should stick with their professional judgment, whatever pressure is put on them to do otherwise.

KATY SIMMONS

Independent Panel for Special Education Advice Brightwell Grange Britwell Road Burnham Buckinghamshire

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