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Bad teacher

The premise of suing an institution of higher education as a result of negligent teaching was brought to everybody's attention in a recent case.

Whilst certainly a forgettable film from 2011, the premise of suing an institution of higher education as a result of negligent teaching was brought to everybody’s attention in the case of Maria Abramova v Oxford Institute of Legal Practice [2011] .

Background

The Claimant was a Russian national who, after obtaining a 2:1 from Oxford University, enrolled on the Legal Practice Course (“LPC”) at the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (“OXILP”). The Claimant subsequently failed a number of exams and after failing to pass one of the compulsory courses at her third attempt, subsequently failed the course.

The Claimant relied upon section 13 of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 which provides:

In the contract for the supply of a service where the supplier is acting in the course of business, there is an implied term that the supplier will carry out the service with reasonable care and skill”

OXILP did not dispute that this term was implied into the contract but vehemently denied its teaching of examination techniques and practices such as letting students mark their own mock assessments amounted to negligence.

OXILP further argued that the complaints made by the Claimant were not justiciable because they engaged the Court in evaluating academic judgments as observed by Lord Woolf in Clark v University of Lincolnshire and Humberside. Whilst Mr Justice Bennett re-iterated that Lord Wool’s point was still “good law” he distinguished the two cases on the basis that the Claimant was not seeking to challenge the overall outcome of her examinations more that the teaching was lacking in reasonable skill and care.

Decision

It was held that whilst a claim for negligent teaching was in theory sustainable, the Claimant’s claim failed.

Mr Justice Bennett considered Phelps v Hillingdon Borough [2001] and reiterated that the correct approach to a claim brought in contract in reliance upon section 13 of the 1982 Act is the same as for one brought in negligence; and should therefore satisfy the long standing test that was establish in Bolam. For the Claimant’s claim to succeed, she needed to show that OXILP had not acted in accordance with a recognised practice even if there was a body of opinion with a contrary view.

Whilst Mr Justice Bennett preferred the evidence of OXILP throughout and even highlighted the success of the overwhelming majority of students who attended there, he confirmed that claims of this nature required expert evidence directed towards the Bolam test. In short, she had failed to provide any credible evidence at all let alone evidence from an expert.

Comment

This was a common sense decision that must come as a welcome relief for education providers. In order for claims under section 13 to succeed, Claimants face a ‘deliberately and properly high standard’ to satisfy the Bolam test.

That being said, it was interesting to see how Mr Justice Bennett distinguished this case from Clark and left the door open for similar claims providing they satisfy Bolam. Education providers should continually monitor and, if needs be, update their practices to ensure industry compliance.