Insurance firms to fight pupils' claims against failing schools

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The Independent Online
Insurance companies which represent education authorities say they will fight claims for damages against failing schools through the courts.

Zurich Municipal, which insures most councils, said it had no intention of settling out of court as happened recently in the case of a man awarded pounds 30,000 for bullying at school. Insurers believe they could win cases against pupils suing schools for bad exam results.

Two teenagers were said yesterday to be "contemplating'' preparing cases against schools failed by the Office for Standards in Education. They say the schools are to blame for their poor GCSE results.

Royal Sun Alliance, the insurance company involved in the bullying case at Shene School in Richmond, south-west London, wanted an out-of-court settlement because it said it would not recover its costs even if the school won the case. The plaintiff was financing the case through legal aid.

A spokesman for Zurich Municipal said: "We think this case is defendable and would definitely defend it.

"We don't think giving in to a claim such as this, which has a very weak foundation in law, would be cheaper. If we did not fight and win a case, we should certainly open the floodgates."

Lawyers agreed it would be very difficult for pupils to win. Julian Gizzi, head of the education law department of City solicitors Beachcroft Stanleys said legal aid should not be granted in such cases, at leastwhere they were unlikely to succeed.

"Such cases look set to continue and grow in number, diverting more and more re- sources away from education and towards lawyers' fees. For the school to defend this action all the way to trial could easily cost as much as two or three times a teacher's salary."

Labour urged the Government to close any legal loophole which might encourage pupils to make claims against failing schools.

David Blunkett, labour's education spokesman, told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "I can't see how we can go into a situation where there is a threat hanging over legitimate inspection, where revealing that something is wrong is used in terms of legal action and where money is then withdrawn from a school that needs it."

The Legal Aid Board said the pupils involved in the case had not applied for legal aid. In all cases, the board considered the legal merits of the claim to see whether there were reasonable prospects of success.