Lords to decide dyslexia diagnosis case

Roger Pearson reports on the latest move in a long-running dispute over responsibility for diagnosis of learning difficulties.

A 24-year-old dyslexic woman who is suing her former schools over their failure to diagnose her condition is to take her fight on to the House of Lords.

Pamela Phelps of Hayes End, West London, was awarded u45,650 by the High Court in her claim against Hillingdon Borough Council's education authority.

However, she was stripped of that award by the Court of Appeal last November. Now though, after considering the case in private, Lords Steyn, Hoffmann and Clyde have given Phelps leave to appeal to the House of Lords against the November ruling.

The case is one which, if it succeeds, could have wide-ranging ramifications.

Such a decision would pave the way for other dyslexics to seek damages from education authorities.

When the case went to the High Court, the judge found that Hillingdon had been liable for the negligence of an educational psychologist who failed to identify that Phelps had a special learning difficulty.

However, the Court of Appeal reversed that decision. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith said that the psychologist's job had been to advise the school and the education authority. He said this did not amount to "an assumption of responsibility".

He said it would be wrong for the education authority to be rendered liable by the backdoor of vicarious liability. If that happened, he considered there was a serious risk that vexatious claims could be brought against many teachers or educational psychologists many years after the relevant decisions were taken.

He also said that even if Phelps, who claimed she has been condemned to a life of menial work as a result of what happened, had been diagnosed as dyslexic at an earlier date, it would be impossible to say whether different teaching techniques would have made any difference to her learning achievements.

However, after the appeal Phelps' solicitor, education law specialist Jack Rabinowicz, branded the decision as one which flew in the face of previous decisions by the Law Lords. He went on record saying that schools and their advisers had to be responsible and if things went badly wrong it was not something that society would accept.

He claimed that the decision of the appeal judges would give carte blanche to schools to make mistakes and not pay the consequences.