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Vahidi v Fairstead House School Trust Ltd, Court of Appeal, 9 June 2005

18 July 2005
The issues

Stress At Work – Mediation

The facts

Mrs Vahidi was a teacher who joined the staff of Fairstead House School in January 1977 as a teacher of the Reception Class.

The school was a small one with about 160 pupils. The Claimant remained the reception teacher until dismissed on the grounds of ill health on 19th November 1998.

By then she had been off work between 17th October 1997 until 22nd June 1998. She worked part time and then full time for the last 4 weeks of the summer term. She resumed her duties at the first part of the Michaelmas term but went sick on 24th October and did not work again.

In 1988 the Claimant was appointed Assistant Head. A routine inspection by HMI in November 1995 revealed areas of weakness which the then Head Mistress, Mrs Buckenham felt needed addressing. There were a number of changes with the way in which the school operated which persuaded the Claimant that Mrs Buckenham was trying to side line her. The Judge found that this belief was in error but honest. The most significant difficulties arose from the need for inspections, the first an ISJC inspection and the second an Ofsted inspection. The ISJC report suggested that the reception class was unprepared for the more serious HM inspection which was due to take place between September and December 1997. In the end the inspection did not take place until January 1998.

In September the Claimant was asked to work closely with another member of staff. The Claimant took the view that the parents would not understand why the forthcoming changes were necessary. She later described herself as being in a blind panic without real support. In October she went to see her GP complaining of depression and was by that time quite seriously ill.

The school were told by the Priory Hospital that they hoped to discharge the Claimant in January 1998 but that she would need rehab for 2 or 3 months before return to work. In March the Claimant’s GP told the Chairman of the Governors that the Claimant hoped to be well enough to return in June but that she had been told by her psychiatrist that she should work only part time for the rest of the summer term.

In April 1998 there was a meeting between the Claimant, Mrs Buckenham and Mrs Kerry, the Chairman of the Governors. The Claimant said she was feeling better and would be ready to return in mid June. Mrs Kerry was concerned that the return to work might jeopardise the Claimant’s health in the light of what she had been told by the GP.

With the Claimant’s permission she obtained a further report on the Claimant from the Psychiatrist. By May she had not heard and was concerned. She asked the Claimant to see a consulting Occupational Physician. He reported that the Claimant felt she had been side lined and that her experience of teaching was being questioned.

He thought that she appeared to be reconciled to the need for change but that her illness might worsen if stressful factors became evident. He indicated that she could return to work full time with the help of an assistant. In the autumn term the Claimant was provided with weekly support meetings and an assistant teacher. Between September and October the Claimant began to look unwell and became withdrawn and confused at weekly planning meetings and the classroom assistant had become unhappy with the situation. At some stage around this time the Claimant told Mrs Buckenham that she had been to see a doctor and was hoping to be signed off medication.

At the support meeting on 23rd October which was the last school day before half term the Claimant did not suggest that anything untoward had occurred but at lunchtime she could take no more and left the school and never returned. The Judge at first instance found that the school could not be blamed for the first breakdown because the school had had no notice. He found that the second incident was not caused by any breach of duty on the part of the Defendant.

The Claimant appealed.

The decision

It was argued for the Claimant that the school should have supported the Claimant more fully by discussing with her during the period from September to October whether in the light of her health she was truly able to do her work with the Reception Class.

Secondly, it was argued that in the light of the observed deterioration in her condition, the school should have sought further medical assistance for and in relation to her.

Thirdly it was argued that in the light of the Claimant’s evident failure to cope, the school should have sent her home either on full pay or on sick pay.

The first argument failed on the facts. The Claimant was given support.

The second allegation that the school should have sought further medical assistance was hopeless. The school had sought and obtained two reports whilst the Claimant had been off work. The Claimant herself was seeing a psychiatrist in late September or October and had told the school. She had told the school that she was hoping that her psychiatrist would say that the medication was no longer necessary. Although this was at a time when members of staff thought the Claimant was becoming worse, the Claimant’s statement was one which the school had no option but to take at face value. To suggest a further visit to the psychiatrist would have been extremely intrusive.

The third argument was also wide of the mark. To have sent the Claimant home would have bound to have been perceived as a hostile act since it would indicate a lack of confidence in the Claimant and would be just the sort of conduct that might in itself have precipitated a relapse. Lady Justice Hale had stated in Hatton “in principle the law should not be saying to an employer that it is his duty to sack an employee who wants to go on working for him for the employees own good”.

Appeal dismissed.

Comments

Lord Justice Longmore who gave the Judgment of the Court commented “one shudders to think of the costs of this appeal and of the Trial” which took 9 days. Since the principles in stress at work cases had generally been settled, litigants should be mediating these cases. He regretted that mediation had taken place neither before Trial nor before appeal or that if it had, that it had not produced a
result.

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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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