Ashdown House School case (a summary)

I bring news of an interesting disability discrimination case involving an independent school in England.  The case was determined by the Upper Tribunal, which is basically the appeal route as exists in Scotland from the Health and Education Chamber (previously known as the Additional Support Needs Tribunals).

The case is that of Ashdown House School v. JKL & MNP (not their real names!) and involved a pupil who was referred to for the purposes of the case as “Bobby”.

The facts of the case

Bobby was ten years old and a pupil at Ashdown House School, who has ADHD, sensory processing difficulties and emotional and social difficulties arising from trauma in his early childhood and in the womb.  He is a disabled person in terms of Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010.

He was permanently excluded from the School on 9 February 2019.  He was excluded for aggressive behaviour, including placing another pupil in a headlock and what the school describes as “37 incidents of unprovoked aggression”.  The school admitted that the exclusion amounted to unfavourable treatment, but maintained that the exclusion was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.  The aim in this case was to ensure the health and safety of staff and pupils at the school.  For their part, the parents accepted that this was a legitimate aim, but not that the school had acted proportionately.

The Tribunal (at first instance) found that the exclusion was not proportionate, and was therefore unlawful discrimination.  This was for a number of reasons.  The Tribunal found that while the school had made a number of reasonable adjustments, there were other reasonable adjustments which could have been made (including anger management sessions, consulting with the local authority, and allowing parents to seek a review of Bobby’s Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), or seeking advice from CAMHS regarding his medication).  The Tribunal also found that the exclusion came “like a bolt out of the blue” in that neither pupil nor parents had been warned it was a possible consequence of the incidents.  There was also evidence that other violent incidents within the school (involving other, non-disabled pupils) had been dealt with less severely.

The Tribunal ordered Bobby’s immediate readmission, and that the school formally apologise to Bobby.

The school appealed to the Upper Tribunal.

Legal questions arising on appeal

In considering the appeal, the Upper Tribunal had to consider four discrete points:

  1. Does the First-tier Tribunal (SENDIST) have the power to order reinstatement of an excluded pupil to school?
  2. How can decisions of the First-tier Tribunal (SENDIST) be enforced, if not by the Tribunal itself?
  3. In the light of the courts’ traditional reluctance to order specific performance of contracts involving personal service/contact or supervision, is an order to reinstate a pupil at an independent school (in terms of a contract between the parents and the school) appropriate?
  4. Is it appropriate to order an apology in special educational needs and disability (SEND) cases?

The Upper Tribunal’s decision

The Upper Tribunal dismissed the appeal, and Bobby was – ultimately – allowed to return to school.  I understand that he also received his apology.

The school argued, that in the case of an independent school, the Tribunal would be restricted to making a declaration of discrimination, and making recommendations for the school to consider.  The Upper Tribunal rejected this argument. The wording of the Act permits Tribunal to make such order as it thinks fit (excluding an order for payment of compensation).  This wording obviously includes a power to order reinstatement.

At some considerable length, the Upper Tribunal considers how one of its decisions might be enforced, if not complied with.

Although the Tribunal itself does not have the power to enforce its own decisions in that regard, one of the parties to the action can rely on the inherent power of the High Court to commit for contempt of court in the event of non-compliance with the order or the [Equality and Human Rights Commission] may itself take proceeding under s.24 of the 2006 Act to achieve the same end. The School, however, is not amenable to judicial review because it is not a public body and in expelling the pupil it was not exercising public law functions.

Of course, in Scotland, the President of the Health and Education Chamber has specific powers to monitor the implementation of Tribunal decisions.  In the event that such decisions are not implemented, a referral to the Scottish Ministers (who have enforcement powers and mechanisms in relation to both public and independent schools) may be made.

Edit – while it is true that the Scottish Ministers do have enforcement powers in relation to both public and independent schools, the powers of the President under Rule 12 of the Tribunal’s Procedure Rules do seem to be limited to decisions affecting education authorities.  They would not be available where the responsible body was the proprietor of an independent school.  Apologies.  In such cases, a parent or pupil might approach the Scottish Ministers directly (or the Registrar of Independent Schools) to progress their complaint.

The Upper Tribunal determined that while the Tribunals should have regard to the historic reluctance of the courts to impose specific performance of a contract which involves personal service and supervision, and the reasons for that reluctance, this did not preclude the Tribunal from making such an order in appropriate circumstances.

The Upper Tribunal suggested that it would be “sensible for a Tribunal considering a disability discrimination claim in the future to consider matters such as whether it is practicable to make an order for reinstatement and, in cases where the applicant has caused or contributed to the expulsion, whether it would be just to order reinstatement.”

In finding that an order for an apology was appropriate in these circumstances, the Upper Tribunal set out the following guidance for future cases (likely to be relevant in Scottish cases, too) repeated largely verbatim below:

  • The Tribunal does have the power to make an order for an apology.
  • An apology may have a wider purpose than merely preventing further discrimination against the child in question. To the extent that an apology is an assurance as to future conduct, an order that there be an apology gives teeth to a declaration of unlawful discrimination.
  • There can be value in an apology: apologies are very important to many people and may provide solace for the emotional or psychological harm caused by unlawful conduct. An apology might reduce the mental distress, hurt and indignity associated with a permanent exclusion. It might also assist with recovery, forgiveness and reconciliation. An order that there be an apology can be regarded as part of the vindication of the claimant.
  • A tribunal should consider whether the apology should more appropriately be made to the child or to their parents. In the case of very young children the latter may be more appropriate for obvious reasons.
  • An order to make an apology may well be appropriate when there is already an acceptance that there has been discrimination or unlawful conduct.
  • However, the fact that there has been a contested hearing and that the respondent has strenuously disputed that there has been any discrimination or unlawful conduct is not decisive against ordering an apology.
  • Nevertheless, particularly where there has been a dispute or a contested hearing, the tribunal should always consider whether it is appropriate to make an order and bear in mind that it may create resentment on one side and an illusion on the other, do nothing for future relations and may make them even worse.
  • Before ordering an apology, a tribunal should always satisfy itself that it will be of some true value.
  • A tribunal should always be aware that there may be problems of supervision if it accepts responsibility for overseeing the terms of the apology which can result in drawn out arguments over wording.

Conclusion

The decision of the Upper Tribunal in this case is likely to be of interest and use in a number of Scottish cases, especially those involving questions of admission and exclusion to an independent school.  However, the points of guidance on the question of an apology are of broader application and I anticipate will be widely cited within the Health and Education Chamber.

 

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