Parents who lose objectivity

August 28th, 2014 by Paul Greatorex

It is not often that private law disputes between schools and parents are pursued to trial and judgment in the High Court, but St Christopher School (Letchworth) Ltd v Schymanski and Rao [2014] EWHC 2573 (QB) is one of those cases.

The claimant is an independent school for children aged 3-18, notable amongst other things for its vegetarian diet and “first names” policy for pupils addressing teachers.  It sued for £23,231.10 in unpaid fees in respect of the defendants’ three boys; the parents counter-claimed making 21 allegations of breach of contract, consisting of a wide range of alleged failings with regard to their sons’ education, physical safety and emotional well-being.  One of these was an allegation of racist bullying, although as Holroyde J observed at [246], “by the time of the Parents’ closing submissions, allegations of racial discrimination formed a core part of the Parents’ case”.

The parents had been legally represented for a significant part of the proceedings but represented themselves at the trial which lasted 9 days; the judgment handed down at the end of July runs to 271 paragraphs over 68 pages.  Dismissing all of the parents’ allegations and finding for the school in every respect, Holroyde J:

  1. upheld the school’s claim for unpaid fees and dismissed the parents’ counterclaim [233-253]
  2. said that even if there had been a breach of contract the parents failed to prove this caused the loss and damage claimed [254]
  3. ordered the parents to pay indemnity costs and interest at 10.5% from the date of the school’s Part 36 offer in 2011 (which the school beat) [259-264]
  4. lifted the anonymity order made earlier in the proceedings [265-269], and
  5. refused permission to appeal [270].

Concluding a series of findings which bear a striking similarity to those made in a case I blogged about last year, Holroyde J said that the parents had lost all objectivity and continued at [247]:

“That loss of objectivity has in my view been a prominent feature of the trial. The unhappy reality of the case, in my judgment, is that the Parents have on many occasions come to the view that one or more of the Boys was in some way unhappy or underperforming and have simply assumed that the cause must lie in an unspecified fault on the part of the School. They have either made no enquiry of the Boys, or have contented themselves with an uncritical acceptance of anything said by the Boys even when contradicted by members of the School’s staff, and they have been very ready to make unfair and hurtful allegations against anyone who contradicted their views. It is natural, and commendable, for them to want the best for their sons. I am afraid, however, that they have lost objectivity to such an extent that they would not give the School, or any member of staff, any credit for anything, and would criticise the School whatever action it took or did not take. They have criticised the School for invoking a formal complaints procedure when the Parents did not seek it, but I have no doubt that any further attempts by the School at informal resolution would simply have been met with different criticisms. As the trial progressed, I came increasingly to the conclusion that the Parents simply wanted all matters relating to the Boys to be dealt with exactly as the Parents wished, and would criticise any action taken by the School which did not conform to the Parents’ wishes. At no point throughout the trial did either Parent acknowledge, still less applaud, the many hours which members of staff devoted to speaking to them and corresponding with them. Similarly, when Hertfordshire CSF disagreed with their criticisms of the School, the Parents were equally quick to make serious allegations of collusion against that authority.”

Lifting the anonymity order was justified as follows:

“[T]here is in my view a strong public interest in the media being able to publish accurate reports of these proceedings. I have found that the Parents have made and pursued serious allegations against the School, and against individual members of staff, which were without foundation. I am told that the allegations of racist bullying have been reported in the press, and are therefore likely to have been seen by parents of pupils and prospective pupils of the School. In those circumstances, there is in my judgment a strong public interest in the outcome of these proceedings being known, since otherwise the School and individual member of staff may wrongly and unfairly be thought to have behaved in a reprehensible manner. In my judgment, that public interest substantially outweighs the need to protect the Boys against possible embarrassment. In those circumstances, despite my sympathy for the position of the Boys, it is in my judgment appropriate for me to discharge the order.”

The judgment can be read here.

Paul Greatorex

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