Prescience curbs rash actions

22nd February 2008 at 00:00

While schools will do their best to avoid the courts, even the prudent sometimes need legal advice or representation.

Independent schools make their own arrangements, but maintained schools are not always clear where they stand. Broadly speaking, legal support to individual schools is delegated; though the local authority retains money for legal matters connected with its own statutory duties (such as enforcing attendance). So what should a school do?

The simplest response is to do nothing and hope. This is economical if nothing happens and a school carries a contingency fund. However, this is also the most risky. Legal risks and costs are unpredictable.

Some schools rely on their insurers and human resources advisers to provide advice and legal support. This works if the school is defending a claim in employment law or negligence. However, it does not cover all possibilities: for example, claims in human rights or judicial review for administrative injustice.

The last two possibilities are to take out legal insurance or to buy a package of support from the local authority. Legal insurance needs to be checked to be sure it covers what may be needed. The straightforward local authority option also needs checking.

The multiple accountabilities of a local authority may put it in a position where it feels that it has a duty to be an advocate for parents and children. This is a problem when the action is by a parent against a school.

The local authority, however, must provide the support the school has contracted for: either through another local authority's legal services or through independent solicitors.

No one should enter into legal action "rashly or inadvisedly", but sometimes a principle has to be upheld. In law, as in other areas, schools need to be wise before the event.

Richard Bird, Legal consultant to the Association for School and College Leaders.

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