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Ashford v Somerset County Council, Yeovil County Court, 22 November 2010

10 December 2010
The issues

The thrust of the particulars of breach of duty were that the Defendant failed to take reasonable care of the Claimant’s safety in that they had inadequately assessed the risk the school’s doors had posed to the children and had consequently failed to fit either slow closing mechanisms or other hinge protectors to the doors of the school. There was also a further allegation that the Defendant had failed to ensure adequate supervision of the children in their exiting from the drama room. The Defendant denied such breaches.
Accordingly the issues in the case were:

* Should the Defendant have fitted door closures or other protection to the drama room door?
* Had the Defendant assessed the risk posed by the school’s doors adequately?
* Was there sufficient supervision of the pupils in place at the school?

The facts

The Claimant, aged 9, was a student of Huish Primary School in Yeovil. His last lesson on 8 February 2007 was a drama class with around 15 other pupils. When the lesson ended, his teacher asked the class to line up to exit the room and return to their own classroom to pick up their belongings and go home. After the pupils lined up, the teacher placed herself at the front of the queue, opened the door, and led the children out into a central corridor of the school. The Claimant was at the back of the line.

After he exited the drama room, the Claimant turned round to talk to some friends that were still in the drama room. The teacher was some way down the corridor at this point. As he did so he was leaning on the door frame of the drama room with his fingers in the hinge of the door. Suddenly the door closed trapping his fingers and consequently caused him to lose the tip of his left ring finger.

The Claimant subsequently brought an action against the Defendant for breach of statutory duty under s2 Occupiers Liability Act 1957 and 17(3) Education (School Premises) Regulations 1999 and also in negligence.

The decision

Door protection
The Defendant’s duty in the circumstances was to take such care of the children at the school as would be exercised by a reasonably careful parent, but this did not require it to take reasonable steps to ensure the complete safety of its pupils. It was foreseeable that schoolchildren would fall or trip on stairs for example, but that did not make premises with stairs unsafe. There was a difference between such commonplace features and guarding against, say, a large drop with banisters.

The safe negotiation of doors in particular was part of the everyday experience of children, indeed it was reasonable to expect that a child of the Claimant’s age would be familiar with doors, just as he would be with steps and it was reasonable to assume that he should have been able to use them properly. Just because door closures or hinge protectors were available to guard against risks posed by doors did not mean any duty was breached if they were not utilised. Essentially, it was not necessary to use such protection as a child was reasonably safe without it.

Risk Assessment
In terms of the risk assessment system the Defendant had in place, the Headteacher had explained in evidence that there were termly visits by a County Surveyor to identify risks. They were carried out by herself or the deputy and both had attended training in preparing such statements.

In 2005, concerns had been raised as to the risk posed by trapping fingers in certain doors that were prone to slamming. A risk assessment had consequently been carried out specifically in respect of the school’s doors but the drama room door was not identified as one prone to slamming. It was therefore not fitted with a door closure as the other relevant “slamming” doors were consequently.

Thus it was true that the Defendant had not assessed the risk of the Claimant’s type of accident occurring at the dram room door in particular, but the Court found it was unnecessary to do so. No incident of an accident similar to the Claimant’s had ever happened since the school was built in 1989 and in absence of any special dangerous feature (such as tendency to slam), there was no requirement for such an assessment.

Supervision
In evidence the Claimant’s drama teacher had stated that she had led the line leading the children out of the drama room rather than bring up the rear as she felt it would give her a better view of what was going on and would prevent the children dashing off to their classroom and causing other problems.

It was argued by the Claimant that either a “sensible” pupil should have been placed at the front of the line whilst she headed up the back or that two teachers or assistants should have been available to supervise the children. These arguments were rejected by the Court, however. In relation to the second argument in particular it was found that it would be “entirely remarkable” to find that teaching resources should be consumed in this way when the operation of exiting a classroom was usually entirely safe and commonplace.

Conclusion
The claim was therefore dismissed.

With thanks to Rebecca Grant of 1 Chancery Lane who appeared for the Defendant and prepared this note.
RGrant@1chancerylane.com

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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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