Millward v Oxfordshire County Council (2004)

The court’s decision in this case was that the defendents, Oxfordshire County Council should pay £230,000 in compensation to Sharon Millward, 51, of Newcombe Drive, Little Hulton. Prior to the hearing, which took place on 23rd February 2004 at London’s High Court, the Council had offered only £50,000 to settle her claim.)

Background

In 2000, Mrs Millward had been employed as a ‘special needs’ teacher at Thornbury House secure unit in Kidlington, Oxfordshire. In April that year, she had been attacked by a 13 year old boy pupil and kicked and battered with furniture. She sustained bruising to her arms and her groin. Whilst her physical injuries were not permanent, she suffered moderate to severe post traumatic stress disorder and was forced to retire prematurely on ill health grounds. It was considered likely that she would never work again.

She sued her employer, claiming damages on grounds of breach of duty of care – negligence.

Failures of systems (rather than of individuals)

The High Court Judge, Mr Justice Hughes noted the failure of the unit’s management to inform Mrs Millward of the pupil’s history of violence and aggression, particularly towards women. He said “If the risk that the pupil presented had been identified and communicated to Mrs Millward as it should have been, I am satisfied that the injury she suffered would not have occurred; if the risk had been appreciated at least in the early stages, a single female teacher would not have been left alone. As it is, the pupil did precisely what his history said he might do. He showed violence and contempt towards a woman member of staff who offended him. What happened was foreseeable and would have been comparatively easy to prevent.” He concluded that there had been ‘a failure of systems’ rather than of individuals.

Guidance for the future

Mr Justice Hughes said that when a pupil was transferred: Any relevant history of violence should be given in writing to the new school; a telephone call on its own would not be sufficient; the history should cover special circumstances, (which in this case included a history of targeting women); putting up a notice on a general noticeboard was not a good enough system to warn people in Mrs Millward’s position of the risk.

Note: Anything less may be expected to fall short of duty expectations!

Contributory negligence

Mr Justice Hughes ruled that the council was only 75 per cent responsible for what happened. He said Mrs Millward was 25 per cent responsible – because, shortly before the assault, she had demanded that the boy should “shut up”. This, he said was wrongly confrontational and risky. The decision resulted in the compensation award to Mrs Millward being reduced by a quarter!

Seeking a quiet life (after her four year struggle for justice)

After hearing the court’s decision, Mrs Millward said: “I am extremely relieved that my case has come to an end nearly four years after the attack. It has been a difficult time for myself and my family. Now I want a quiet life as this incident has been in the forefront of my mind for so long. I lost the job I loved and no award can give me back the life I had expected to lead. While I am satisfied with the outcome of my case, I am saddened that my career had to end in such a sudden and brutal way. I hope that LEAs and schools will learn from my experience and take steps to protect their staff by keeping them fully informed of any and all risks posed when teaching pupils from troubled backgrounds.

P.S.

After thinking it was all over, Mrs Milward then learned that the Council were seeking to appeal against the decision. She had to endure a further 6 months of uncertainty, worry and anxiety before learning, on Thursday 12th August 2004, that the Council’s application to appeal had been refused and that she could keep the compensation she’d been awarded.

Mrs Millward’s team

Sharon Millward was represented by Simon Dyer, barrister, of Cloisters who was instructed by Duncan Harman-Wilson of Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, solicitors, on behalf of the NAS/UWT.

 

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