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Is ‘Mock Murder’ in School Legal? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

gun2Last week, the staff at Blackminster School, Evesham contrived to stage an impromptu hoax killing in a playground full of 10 to 13 year olds.

For some unfathomable reason they thought it would be a formative experience for them.

Without any warning, the poor lambs were obliged to witness a hooded figure run up to Mr Kent, their beloved religious knowledge teacher and gun him down in cold blood before running off.

Mr Kent apparently met his maker most convincingly.

The terror-stricken children, were then led off , crying, vomiting and right royally traumatised, into the classrooms and, thereafter, were herded into the assembly hall where, after an unconscionable delay of about a quarter of an hour or so, they were told it had all been a hoax.

So that’s alright then, is it?

Er…no actually.

In a British playground, where it is now forbidden to play conkers, throw snowballs, eat sweets, climb trees or even to run, it’s apparently quite OK for the teachers to stage horrific murders in front of the children without warning.

How infuriatingly and pathetically ironic;  but also how unforgivably arrogant of the Blackminster staff to think that such a ghoulish act could in any circumstances be thought educational or anything other than severely harmful to the children.  Apparently, the idea was to create a Crime Scene Investigation to spice up the science lesson. Ha!

Will they just get on with teaching our children how to count, read, write and string a sentence together and leave off trying to turn them into pre-pubescent forensic investigators?

For pity’s sake!

The following blog comment set my lawyer’s mind working:

 SHOCKBLOGPOST

In the US you would not be able to see the school gates for ambulance-chasing lawyers.  I would hazard that the damages awarded against the school by a US jury would stretch to seven figures.

So what is the legal position in the UK?

Can these teachers be successfully sued for such outrageous behaviour?

One thing is for sure, if the boot was on the other foot and it was the children that had staged a mock massacre of the innocents for laughs, they would be suspended and probably expelled.

So…what about the teachers?

English Law, as is so often the case, is not entirely clear on whether or not an intentional hoax that causes panic, trauma and nervous shock of the kind that every child in the Blackminster School playground must have suffered by the deliberate act of their teachers, is actionable, but I suspect that I voice the opinion of many when I say it damn well ought to be.

It is high time to revive an old authority in the form of Wilkinson –v- Downton [1897] 2 QB 57 and bring it back into service especially to deal with cases like the Blackminster case where the hoax in question is perpetrated in the context of the special relationship of trust that exists, or should exist, between teacher and pupil, or any other special relationship of trust for that matter.

Wilkinson –v- Downton  was a case involving a hoax or practical joke of  similar ilk, although nowhere near as gruesome as that practised upon to the poor childer of Blackminster School. The defendant was successfully sued in damages for causing nervous shock and trauma to the landlady of The Albion Public-house by telling her that her dear husband had been severely injured in a riding accident. It was not true but he thought it was a bit of a laugh. She was so traumatised that her hair turned white and fell out, apparently. The perpetrator had to cough up damages of £100 which was a tidy sum in those days.

This early case established that the legal tort of intentionally causing emotional harm to another person was actionable before the English courts. The court deliberately fudged the question of intention saying that intention could be imputed to the defendant if a reasonable person would have recognised that the hoax would cause severe trauma to the plaintiff.

So we are already up and running in our claim against Blackminster then.

It is pretty clear that the staff of Blackminster School intended the hoax killing to be witnessed by the children and to produce some kind of emotional effect upon them. Even if the staff were so emotionally-challenged themselves as not to recognise the effect that the gruesome subterfuge would have on the children (which alarmingly seems to be the case), no reasonable person would conclude that the effect of staging a cold-blooded killing in a school playground by the very people who stood ‘in loco parentis’ could do anything other than to cause severe nervous shock and mental distress to the children.

The problem is that the legal tort of intentionally or recklessly  causing emotional harm to another person has rather been over-reached by the broader law of negligence and, the courts have, as a matter of public policy, deliberately sought to limit the principle that anyone who causes nervous shock or severe trauma to another person is liable to be sued in damages. The argument seems to run that it is commonplace for pranks to be played, or words to be used, with the deliberate intention of causing humiliation or some kind of shock and the law should not award damages as a matter of course in such cases.

Well OK, but it is rather a matter of degree, isn’t it?

Surely, there is a distinction to be drawn between telling a workmate that his fly his undone and then flicking his nose when he looks to see, and a hoax murder in cold blood of a teacher followed by  make-believe and unsuccessful CPR by teachers in front of their pupils without any prior warning or explanation.

By staging the murder hoax, it would appear that the staff of Blackminster behaved negligently and in breach of the high standard of care that any teacher owes a pupil. The question is whether the law, in its current unsatisfactory state, would uphold a claim in damages for the nervous distress thereby caused.

The children would have more of a chance if they suffered, or go on to suffer, recognisable psychiatric illness as a result of the shock that they endured, although, of course, no-one would wish this upon any of them.

What the law regards as ‘psychiatric illness’ is again open to debate. It would probably include severe post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder and other severe psychological condition caused by the shock. It may well not include simple nervous shock and its immediate, but temporary, symptoms.

Shame.

An action in negligence against the school would also require the various ‘proximity tests’ to be satisfied. These are the somewhat arbitrary limitations that the courts have used to prevent a proliferation of ‘anxiety claims’. For instance, the law requires that there should be a ‘special tie of love or affection’ between the personal suffering the accident and the witness claiming nervous shock as a result. It may be doubted whether the teacher-pupil relationship would satisfy that test, especially in this particular school.

However, I would argue that the children in this case were not witnesses but principal victims of the hoax that was perpetrated against them so that the proximity tests should not apply.

Sometimes, old law is good law.

I would like to see a class action brought against the school based on Wilkinson –v- Downton (discussed at length with other relevant case law by the House of Lords in the Wainwright case [2003]) on the basis that real nervous shock and psychological distress (though short of psychiatric illness) suffered by the victims of a deliberate hoax, where the perpetrator intends to shock, or is reckless as to whether shock is caused, and where the perpetrator is in a special position of trust such as  a teacher, should be compensated by the payment of substantial damages.

This would teach the blighters a lesson since they seem incapable of teaching a decent lesson themselves.

Quis cusodiet ipsos custodes?

Only the courts, I fear.

2 Comments

  1. I read of the murder hoax in the national press and I was AMAZED!

    Something has gone very wrong with the system when a group of teachers think that this would be a bonzer wheeze.

    The blog above is a great piece of observation on the matter and I commend it.

    MJB

  2. LadyBizBiz says:

    Thank you to Chris Sherlicker for giving us a legal angle on this appalling event.

    I’m sure there are tens of thousands of parents and grandparents who having heard this story, are wondering what is happening to the standards within our children’s schools.

    Who in their right mind would sanction such a potentially damaging prank. I wonder what process preceded this hoax. It surely had to have the ‘go-ahead’ of the Head of the school. Perhaps it had the the OK of the governors.

    Who is ultimately responsible for causing the damage?

    Did they truly believe the witnessing of a ‘mock murder’ would impact in a positive way – perhaps the goal was to desensitize? I cannot think of a more perverse and obtuse perspective.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t school suppose to be the ‘best days of our lives’, filled with goodness and warmth, trust and sincerity.

    I want to see a massive reaction to this event: we should use social media as a platform for debate.

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