Assault by a pupil

Posted on December 16th, 2021

An assistant headteacher was assaulted by a pupil at a community special school. He brought a claim against his employer for negligence and breach of statutory duty. This court of appeal case considered whether a school’s breach of duty, in failing to follow policy following an assault by a pupil, caused loss to the teacher.

First assault

In the case of Cunningham v Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, Mr Cunningham, an assistant headteacher, was twice assaulted by a pupil at a community special school. The first assault took place in September 2015, following which the pupil was temporarily excluded from the school. In October 2015, the pupil attacked another teacher and again was temporarily excluded. Various support systems and meetings were put in place by the school for the pupil.

Second assault

The second assault took place in November 2015, on the first day back after half term and resulted in a fractured cheekbone and psychiatric injury. The pupil had become agitated when denied access to his belongings and, without warning, struck Mr Cunningham. Mr Cunningham did not recover and retired from teaching.

Breach of statutory duty

Mr Cunningham brought a claim against his employer, Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, for negligence and breach of statutory duty. The claim was heard by the high court and his claims were dismissed.

Court of appeal

Mr Cunningham appealed to the court of appeal. The appeal focused on the school’s failure to produce risk assessments, a failure to follow policies and arrange a return to school interview and restorative justice meeting.

In order to succeed, Mr Cunningham needed to show that there was a relevant breach of duty which caused loss (causation). Essentially in this case he needed to show that on a balance of probabilities that a failure to complete the risk assessment, or the failures to have a return to school interview or restorative justice meeting, caused the attack and, if they had taken place, the assault would not have taken place.


The court of appeal held that despite breaches of the duty of care by failing to carry out risk assessments, failing to arrange a return to school interview and restorative justice meeting, Mr Cunningham was unable to show, on the balance of probabilities, that the attack would have been prevented had they taken place.

It was more than probable that the pupil would have attacked Mr Cunningham in any event. The pupil had already had the benefit of extensive interventions over the course of the year. His loss was therefore unavoidable and causation was not established. The appeal was dismissed.

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