Religion row head may be stripped of pound;400k payout

6th November 2009 at 00:00
County council launches legal bid insisting it was not to blame for career-wrecking stress

Original paper headline: Religion row headteacher may be stripped of pound;400k payout

A headteacher who won more than pound;400,000 damages after her career was destroyed by bitter religious in-fighting on a primary school's governing body this week faced a unique Court of Appeal bid to strip her of the payout.

Erica Connor, who lives currently in Abergavenny, Wales, was plunged into depression by acute stress and a string of "vituperative" complaints against her while she was head of the New Monument School in Woking, Surrey, where 80 to 85 per cent of the pupils are from an Islamic background.

The 57-year-old mother-of-one previously said she was left to suffer as a "helpless scapegoat" by her Surrey County Council bosses, until she was forced to leave with ill-health in 2005. In March this year, in a landmark High Court case, a judge awarded her damages of pound;407,781 after ruling the local authority had negligently failed to support her.

This week, however, the council launched a legal bid to overturn the decision at London's Appeal Court, its legal team insisting that it acted sensitively in a delicate, racially charged situation and was in no way to blame for the "stress at work" that wrecked Mrs Connor's career.

Edward Faulks QC, for the council, told three judges that Surrey had done all it could to "mediate" between the school's warring governors.

Surrey, he added, was rightly concerned that heavy-handed intervention could "destabilise" the school, add to the entrenched disagreements among the governors and even trigger a "backlash" in the local community.

Faced with a near-impossible situation - where "every potential course of action had downsides as well as upsides" - the barrister insisted that Surrey had in no way been guilty of "appeasement" of those governors who favoured a greater role for Islam within the school.

After one parent governor, Paul Martin, was "expelled" from the governing body, Surrey was plainly right to investigate his complaint that he had been "victimised for having complained of racism", even though the inquiry inevitably placed pressure on staff morale, the barrister said.

The council was bound to act impartially and, had there been no investigation, said Mr Faulks, Mr Martin would in all likelihood have taken his complaint further, to the Equality and Human Rights Commission or the Local Government Ombudsman.

However, Mrs Connor's QC, Simon Taylor, condemned as "far fetched" and "hollow" Surrey County Council's bid to strip her of the damages she was awarded.

During the hearing of Mrs Connor's case earlier this year, she accused the council of cowardice for failing to stand by her as the school was torn apart by friction among its governors.

And, making the damages award, Judge John Leighton-Williams QC said he had no doubt that the school had done well in difficult circumstances with Mrs Connor in charge and she had done all in her power to foster links with the local community, including the Muslim community.

By late 2003, the school's governing body had become "dysfunctional" and the judge said it was "quite clear" that the conduct of two of the governors - Mr Martin and Mumtaz Saleem, a nominee of the local education authority - was responsible for that.

Ruling Surrey County Council liable for Mrs Connor's suffering, the judge said council officers had shown "excessive tolerance" towards the two governors and a "lack of timely intervention" had resulted in the governing body being "torn apart".

He said that, from June 2004 onwards, the council "ought to have foreseen that Mrs Connor was at risk of psychiatric injury from stress. By late June 2005 that risk had intensified."

The result for Mrs Connor was "a severe depressive episode associated with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder" that effectively annihilated her teaching career.

Matters finally reached a head in September 2005 when Mrs Connor referred herself to a health adviser and, shortly afterwards, went on sick leave with a depressive illness, never to return.

The ruling was postponed and is expected within the month.

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