Education: Pupils make legal history by forcing school repairs

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The Independent Online
Two teenage boys have taken their local authority to court about the potentially dangerous state of their Liverpool school. Katherine Griffiths reports on the decision which could open the legal floodgates to similar cases across Britain.

Rod Salisbury, 16, and Simon Worthington, 14, made legal history yesterday when they won part of a court action aimed at forcing their local authority to carry out pounds 2m repairs to their school.

The Liverpool stipendiary magistrate, David Tapp, ruled that pupils of Childwall Community Comprehensive School are at risk of possible electrocution because of the state of the wiring in some classrooms. Mr Tapp also advised that the school's masonry be inspected and replaced where necessary.

The decision followed a private prosecution by the boys against Liverpool City Council under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act. They had told Liverpool magistrates' court in October that their health had been put at risk by dilapidated school buildings.

Tim King QC, representing the pupils, said that the school is a serious health hazard. Timothy Straker QC, for the city council, disagreed and described Rod and Simon as "fit and healthy".

He said that parts of Childwall school are "not very nice but not very harmful".

Yesterday's decision was based on evidence given by James Hutton, an electronics expert. After reading Mr Hutton's report the court advised that the whole school be disconnected to deal with the problem of excessive water leakage.

"I accept that the council's response to electrical problems is swift, but it is too late if someone has been electrocuted," Mr Tapp said.

Liverpool City Council must now inspect the electrics in 10 rooms in the school's Holt wing. It must restore water-damaged equipment and ensure proper safety. The court rejected the council's argument that it did not have the cash to carry out the repairs.

"The argument on behalf of Liverpool City Council that the council is doing its best and cannot afford to spend more money does not find favour with this court," Mr Tapp said.

However, the court dismissed the boys' claim that sanitary conditions and dampness were prejudicial to health and criticised some of the "expert" witnesses brought by the prosecution. Medical evidence not based on examinations of the complainants or of an inspection of the school but relying on surveys conducted in Finland and the Netherlands was held to be inadequate.

Opinions by the surveyor, Peter Brack, and environmental health expert, Carol Currie, were described as "absurd".

Mr Tapp was keen to stress the limitations of yesterday's decision. Although some have described this as "a landmark case", he said, "each case must be decided on its merits. I do not consider that I have opened or closed the floodgates".

He did not fine the council. The case was adjourned until tomorrow, giving the prosecution and defence teams time to work out a schedule for the repairs.