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dealing with parents who post online

30 November 2015

Safeguarding staff and working within the law to protect teachers from harassment

Advising schools on the legal remedy available under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997

As the school playground becomes increasingly litigious, it isn’t always easy to balance the various demands made by parents seeking the resolution of complaints. Sometimes, however, despite the very best efforts of staff to resolve matters locally, positions become entrenched and the dissatisfaction expressed by parents begins to take a different, more alarming or distressing, course.

Not uncommonly, individuals will resort to the use of social media and the internet to voice their concerns in forums over which school communities have little or no control. Rumour and gossip can start to spread like wildfire, and allegations, often unfounded, can cause widespread damage to reputation and staff morale.

In those circumstances, school leaders often face difficult choices in how to respond. Challenging allegations in the public domain can have an incendiary effect and fan the flames of discontent. Equally, when colleagues face sustained and hurtful criticism, schools can and must act to protect staff.

Securing an injunction against a parent for harassment

Recognising this need to act, we have recently advised upon and secured an injunction on behalf of a school against a parent for harassment in the reported judgment of Lawrence Sheriff School Academy Trust v Amit Matalia [2015].

HHJ Gregory sitting in the Coventry County Court determined that the defendant conducted a campaign against staff at the school over a period of two years through personal meetings, written correspondence and comments on a website specifically acquired for “for mischief making in furtherance of his campaign”.

The judge found that the defendant made “deeply offensive allegations and remarks” including those of racial discrimination which were described by the judge as “frankly, ridiculous”.

He also commented upon the impact the defendant’s approach had on the wider school community, finding that “Mr Matalia demonstrated himself to be utterly convinced of the correctness of his own views… It is not easy through the words of this judgment to convey just how fixed in his views, how intransigent and how unreasonable he is. So, for example, he saw nothing inappropriate in writing to a 13 year old boy, threatening him with an action for defamation and criminal proceedings”.

Under cross-examination by Browne Jacobson’s Associate Barrister, Ben Bentley, the defendant made further allegations and was found by the judge to have “displayed enormous aggression. It was grossly, in my view, unfair and without any evidential foundation whatsoever”.

As a consequence of his course of conduct the court issued an injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 forbidding the defendant from making malicious allegations against any employee or governor of the school, or the publication of personal information about them on his website or elsewhere online.

Legal action as a last, but not unthinkable, resort

Although the circumstances of this case are perhaps stark, and the bar to succeed in obtaining a protection from harassment injunction is deliberately set high – the law expects professionals to be able to cope with the ordinary “banter and badinage” of criticism – this decision should provide comfort to school leaders that there is a route available, with sanction, for individuals who cross that acceptable boundary by their conduct.

It should also assist schools in dealing with parents who post online in pointing out that such legal restrictions can be sought, not to limit freedom of speech – as noted by HHJ Gregory – but to ensure it is not used “as a cloak for verbal harassment” which, in his assessment, would amount to an abuse of the right of free speech.

Dai Durbridge and Richard Freeth, specialist Education Lawyers at Browne Jacobson, would be happy to advise further if you have a situation which might benefit from a review of the legal options available.

Download a full copy of the judgment here

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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