School delayed hammer attack inquiry over fears of liability

Insurers advised against co-operation with serious case review until after victim completed damages claim

An official review into a "racist" hammer attack on a schoolboy was unacceptably delayed because his school's insurers feared it would effect their liability, a judge ruled yesterday.

Henry Webster, then 15, was repeatedly hit on the head with a claw hammer at Ridgeway School in Wroughton, near Swindon, Wiltshire, in January 2007 and left with life-threatening injuries. But the school's insurers advised against Ridgeway co-operating with a serious case review set up by the Swindon Local Safeguarding Children Board until after a claim for damages by Henry and his family, alleging negligence by the school, had been heard.

Yesterday a judge ruled the board, instead of holding a speedy and comprehensive review, had unlawfully phased the inquiry in compliance with the insurer's wishes – delaying its final report by many months. He ordered the board to hold a new review to comply with the terms of his judgment.

The judge said the purpose of statutory serious case reviews was to learn lessons to prevent similar incidents. The assault on Henry involved a group of Asian schoolboys and three car-loads of Asian men who came on to the school premises after being summoned by the boys on mobile phones.

Mr Justice Kenneth Parker said: "The spectre of statutory serious case reviews being stifled by the insurance industry would be potentially of such significance to public policy as to engage the attention of the Secretary of State and, through him if need be, the Association of British Insurers and – in the last resort – the industry regulator, the Financial Services Authority."

As the judge gave his ruling, the damages action being brought by the Webster family against the school was proceeding before another judge in another court at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

Thirteen teenagers, and a man who did not attend the 1,400-pupil school, were convicted for their parts in the attack at Bristol Crown Court last year.

It is claimed there was a negligent failure by the school, which denies liability, to maintain proper discipline and deal with racial tension.

Henry's younger brother Joseph, mother Elizabeth, and stepfather Roger Durnford each say they were left deeply traumatised by witnessing his injuries, and are also seeking damages.

Later Mark McGhee, a solicitor acting for the Webster family, said: "This is an absolute vindication by the judiciary of every step that the Webster family has taken to try to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again."

The Webster family had protested that the review was ineffective because its first phase was only inquiring into what had happened "since the attack", instead of interviewing school staff.

The judge said in his view – "given the particular gravity and injuries sustained by Henry in an incident with apparent racist overtones" – it was imperative that the board should promptly initiate a serious case review "that would report expeditiously".

But the board's decision in February to postpone interviews with the school until the conclusion of the damages claim meant delaying the review for such a substantial period that it would have "little if any practical value".

The judge said: "Although the matter was already urgent in February 2009, the procedure adopted was likely to delay the review by another 9-10 months." He ruled that, although the review might overlap the damages action, it was not reasonably necessary for the review to be delayed. The judge said: "The emerging picture of Parliament's intentions being frustrated in this way is not an attractive one."

The board failed to take proper steps to resolve the issue and seek a compromise with the insurers.