Supreme Court ruling could mean councils could be liable for contractors' errors

Landmark decision could have major implications

The parents of a girl who nearly drowned in a swimming lesson 13 years ago yesterday won a landmark ruling in their fight for damages which could have implications for a range of services farmed out by local councils to private contractors.

The Supreme Court, the UK’s highest judicial body, ruled that an authority had a “non-delegable duty of care” even if it had put its services out to a private contractor.

In the case of Annie Woodland, who was 10 at the time of the accident, swimming lessons had been contracted out to Direct Swimming Services, an independent contractor. Annie, a pupil at Whitmore junior school in Basildon, Essex, had to be pulled from the water and resuscitated  but suffered severe brain damage - as a result of which she is now incapable of looking after her own affairs. Her family allege negligence in her treatment.

Her family suffered setbacks when the High Court threw out a claim against Essex County Council on the grounds it was bound to fail - a decision backed by a majority ruling in the Court of Appeal.

However, Lord Sumption, for the Supreme Court, said parents were required to entrust their child to a school and had no influence over arrangements it may make to delegate or over the competence of “delegates”. He concluded that - if the third party was negligent - Essex County Council would also be in breach of a duty of care.

Catherine Leech, who represented the Woodland family, said: “This judgement is ... important because it can be applied to those charged with looking after vulnerable individuals, be they schools or those in care homes.”

The claim now has to go back to the High Court to determine whether Annie was in fact a victim of negligence. Lord Sumption expressed the hope the parties could come to a "sensible settlement” without further recourse to the courts.

Alison Morris, Annie’s mother, said afterwards she was “greatly relieved that justice had been done”, adding: “It should never have come to this in the first place.  No child should suffer in this way. How could the school not be responsible for our daughter during a national curriculum lesson?”