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Webster & Others v Governors of the Ridgeway Foundation School, High Court, 21 May 2009

15 June 2009
The issues

Disclosure – Human Rights – witness statements – disclosure of material mentioned in witness statements – disclosure of pupil’s names – Data Protection Act 1998.

The facts

The First Claimant was a pupil in year 11 at the Defendant’s school. In January 2007 he was severely beaten by a group of boys and young men in the area of the school’s tennis courts. Four of his assailants were other pupils. All seven were convicted of wounding with intent contrary to Section 18 of the Offences Against a Person Act 1918 61. The Second, Third and Fourth Claimants alleged that they had suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the attack on the First Claimant. The Claimant alleged that the attack was caused or contributed to by the negligence of the Defendants in failing to maintain a proper disciplinary standard or otherwise take proper care for the security of pupils in the school. The Claimant’s case was that the attack had a racial foundation. The Claimant alleged that the Defendants had allowed racial tensions in the school to develop and that this had led to the attack. Witness statements had been exchanged. An Application was made to the Judge by the Claimant for specific disclosure. A number of documents had been disclosed by the Defendant in redacted form omitting the names of pupils. The Claimant sought specific disclosure of unredacted copies of items, including the names of pupils that Year Heads believed to have been involved in the climate of racial tension, a log of investigations into racist incidents, bullying and aggression, and a computerised system used to record pupil misbehaviour which had been referred to in witness statements.

The decision

A party might not object to disclosure of a document if inspection was given only in redacted form, but that did not preclude the disclosing party from arguing that it was under no obligation to allow inspection of that material which had been covered up. A document might contain parts which were material to the matters in dispute and others which were irrelevant. Disclosing the document as a whole could not be taken to amount to a concession or admission that every item in the document was relevant. The Defendants said they were under a duty not to allow inspection of the unredacted documents because of the Data Protection Act 1998. They also relied on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights in support of their argument that unredacted disclosure should not be made.

With regard to the request for the disclosure of names of pupils that Year Heads believed to have been involved with the climate of racial tension, the request was focused and the numbers were small and there could be no objection to disclosure on the grounds of disproportionality.

However, the disclosure of those children’s identities would be an interference with their private lives and it was not necessary for the Claimant to know their identities in order to have a fair Trial. The possibility that revelations of the names might trigger memories in the minds of potential witnesses on the Claimant’s behalf, when those witnesses could not already give the names of members of the Asian Youth Gang was too tenuous to justify interference under Article 8(2) or to make disclosure necessary for a fair Trial. However, the Defendant had to provide an identifier which was unique to that individual and would allow the Claimant to know the person’s race or ethnicity insofar as it was known to the Defendant.

In respect of a log or racist incidents in which perpetrators names had been anonymised, what had been redacted were the names of the victims of the racism or bullying or aggression. The Claimant wanted to know those names so that they could investigate whether any of the pupils might be able to give useful evidence. In other contexts it could be an acceptable practice and a legitimate litigation strategy to make use of disclosed documents to search out witnesses. This case was different however. The matters which the alleged victims had discussed with their teachers had in many cases caused them upset and it would plainly be an interference with the private lives of the pupil’s concerned to order disclosure of their identities.

The Claimant also sought disclosure of a database, together with the software manuals for the system, as employed within the school. The database in question had been referred to in a witness statement by Mr Colledge, the current Head Teacher. The Claimant relied on CPR31.14(1) entitling a party to inspect a document mentioned in a witness statement – a document being defined as “anything in which information of any description is recorded” and therefore capable of including a database. However, the right to inspection of such a document is subject to CPR31.3, i.e. a party has a right to withhold inspection if it would be disproportionate otherwise. Allowing inspection of the whole database would be disproportionate given its size. To require a redacted version of the database would be a substantial task, which would be disproportionate to any possible benefit to the Claimants. Moreover, disclosure of the pupil’s names in the database would be an infringement of their rights under the European Convention Article 8 and would not be justified under Article 8(2).

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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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