01 December 2012

Teaching and Litigation

Reading the judgment in Weir v Geelong Grammar School (Civil Claims) [2012] VCAT 1736, a case that's delighted my students this year.

It concerns action by Rose Ashton-Weir and her mother Elizabeth Jane Weir [Jane weir] against Geelong Grammar for that very up-market school's alleged failure to provide sufficient support for 'gifted' Rose to get into Law at Sydney University. The plaintiffs lost the case. The Tribunal considered claims of breach of contract and misleading &  deceptive conduct pursuant to the Fair Trading Act 1999 (Vic), finding that there was no breach of contract and no relevant misleading or deceptive conduct.

It also found that if the plaintiffs had succeeded, there were problems with the damages claims. Ms Weir had argued that the school should pay for her increased rent when she had to move to new larger premises to accommodate Rose after her daughter returned from Geelong Grammar. She also sought damages regarding loss of earnings regarding a proposed chocolate fortune cookie business.

Ms Weir claimed $500 as the removalist costs of Jane moving from country NSW to Sydney in mid 2009 so that Rose could be accommodated at home, $39,000 (the difference between the rent paid by Jane in Sydney from December 2009 to February 2012, and the rent that she'd been paying in country NSW), and $450,000 (loss of potential earnings in a business venture, based on projected net profits from August 2009 to August 2012, and the refund of the Geelong Grammar fees in Terms 1 and 2 of 2008).

Her daughter claims that "the inadequate education supplied by the School" had set her back:
if the School supplied a proper education, Rose would have been studying Law at Sydney University by now. The School’s failures caused Rose to miss out on entrance to Law. She will have to study Law at post graduate level. She will incur additional University fees and see a deferral of her ability to earn income. Rose claims $95,000.
Lulham DP noted
She [the mother] did not prove, for example, that her residence on Copacabana was so small that Rose could not be accommodated there. People who claim damages have an obligation to mitigate their damage, and if Copacabana was inadequate for Jane and Rose to cohabit, that would not explain why Jane had to move to Double Bay at around 2.5 times her Copacabana rent.
The loss of prospective earnings from the chocolate biscuit business was unsurprisingly rejected as being  losses that fell outside the rule in Hadley v Baxendale, ie  not losses that arose naturally (first limb) or were not losses which were in the contemplation of the defendant at the time the contract was made (second limb).

Lulham DP was unimpressed by the claim for Rose’s loss of income as a lawyer, commenting that
Rose’s claim for damages is illusory. The fact that Rose has gained admission into a double degree at Sydney University reflects well on Rose in Year 12, but also reflects poorly on her claim against the School because it shows that Rose did not suffer any damages at law.
Rose asserts that she will complete her degrees, then study Law, then graduate from Law, then gain employment as a lawyer. Assuming that events pan out in that way, the costs and deferral of income arising from them will not have occurred in “the usual course of things”, within the meaning of Hadley v Baxendale. Rose assumes that the School somehow guaranteed that she would gain admission to Law school immediately after Year 12, and there is no basis for that.
As with Jane, Rose must mitigate her damage. Rose conceded that her Year 12 marks were sufficient to gain her entry into a law school other than Sydney University. Her decision not to take that path is contrary to her duty to mitigate.
Heaven forbid, Rose might have even chosen to study law at UC!

It appears that Rose had been pushed by her parents (particularly her mother) to go to Geelong Grammar, where she was unhappy, did not interact well with other students and teachers, and frequently failed to attend meals and class. She frequently failed to do homework and bring books to class.

School end-of-term reports apparently indicated that she had struggled to meet 'basic expectations and routines', 'eventually was able to organise herself to be on time for meals but not for class attendance', 'was not socialising with students or staff', 'had taken Rose some time to understand the purpose and intensity of [Geelong Grammar's Timbertop program]', 'had been unmotivated at times and had struggled to fulfil commitments', had 'not recognised that the curriculum was not negotiable' and needed to improve her 'attitude and effort'. She 'made a poor effort, displayed very poor organisational skills, displayed unsatisfactory behaviour, was disorganised, unmethodical and careless'. She 'had not submitted work and refused to take responsibility', was 'not good at following up missed work, and was easily distracted'. Those comments are perhaps indicative of teenage unhappiness, rather than brilliance.

Her mother had gained a psychological report when Rose was 13 years old that indicated Rose was highly intelligent - useful if you are aiming at a law degree - but lacked organisational skills and needed a structured environment. The plaintiffs apparently interpreted that report as meaning Rose was “gifted” but had a “disability” (ie lack of organisation and ability to apply herself, a disability that alas seems to be experienced by some law students). Their expectation was that Geelong Grammar would reflect that assessment in its dealings with the student.

They sued the school because it did not help Rose reach her potential as a “gifted” student, and she did not get into Law at Sydney University, although her results were sufficient to get into Law at other NSW universities. She instead chose Arts/Science at Sydney University.

Lulham DP commented
 Being “gifted” is a 2-edged sword – you have to apply yourself. The world is full of talented people and talent alone is not enough.
Lulham noted Yee Tak On v Dr Linda Hort (ANU College) [2012] FMCA 391.

In that case Yee sued the Australian National University when he failed a preparatory course and so was unable to enrol for an undergraduate Law degree. Yee claimed that because he was given a lot of homework and was unable to complete assignments, his results did not meet the standards required for him to gain enrolment as an undergraduate. He sued the ANU for misleading conduct and for maladministration of its course.

The Federal Magistrates’ Court summarily dismissed Mr Yee’s application. Neville FM indicated that
It is not uncommon that courses in educational institutions ... are not delivered to the absolute, highest quality. Such is the reality of most human endeavour. However, it is one thing for educational courses, to be, among other things, of varying quality: it is quite another for the delivery of a course to provide a base, in law, for a dissatisfied student to claim the relief sought by Mr Yee. ... I do not see that a legal base has been established, or that it could be established, to support the claims for which he contends ... While Mr Yee obviously has a grievance with the College, in my view, that grievance is insufficient, as a matter of law, to provide any foundation for the claims he has set out in his application.
Last year in Abramova v Oxford Institute of Legal Practice [2011] EWHC 613 (QB) Maria Abramova sued the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (OxILP) for £100,000 for negligence and breach of contract after she failed her Property Law and Practice admission exams. She claimed she found it "psychologically difficult" to take legal exams and that the Institute had been negligent in her preparation. The judgment by Burnett J is uncomfortable reading, stating that
The claimant was a witness who, in my judgement, was ready to blame anyone but herself for her misfortunes. She was inappropriately, and in my view without foundation, willing to make criticisms of those who taught her.  I came away with the clear impression that when the claimant said that it did not occur to her that she might fail, she meant it.  She still finds it difficult to comprehend why she failed.  Furthermore, she continues to labour under the impression that when she was told by various members of staff that her answers were wrong or inadequate, that in fact the answers were right. The evidence from the staff that they gave the claimant every assistance when she asked for it was compelling. ... There were, in addition, times during her evidence where I concluded that the claimant was being less than frank.
Burnett J in concluding stated that
I am unable to accept that the teaching in examination techniques was inadequate, still less negligent ....The success of the overwhelming majority of students at OXILP is itself testimony to the quality of the teaching, reflected also in the overall assessment of outside observers. ...
The question formulated in argument was whether, had the claimant been taught as she suggests that she should have been, there was a realistic chance she might have passed the course, or would it be no more than speculative that she might. In my judgement the answer is that there was no realistic chance of the claimant passing the course. For whatever reason, the claimant did not display aptitude necessary to succeed on the Legal Practice Course. ... The breadth of her difficulties in passing various papers suggests a fundamental problem which the lack of success in the New York bar examinations confirms. Despite her academic ability, which is beyond doubt, the claimant's difficulties in achieving success in the Legal Practice Course were profound, indeed fatal to that success.
 In 2010 Tony Chinedu Wogu as a self-represented litigant failed in his bid to sue the University of Bradford for a mere £5m compensation, alleging that a 2.2 and not a First in Computing Science was the result of discrimination and breach of contract.

The University successfully argued that the matter should be struck out, characterising the £5m claim as "unsustainable and unrealistic" and going on to label the suit as one that was "incoherent and makes no sense", "a waste of the court's and the parties' time and resources". Collender J struck out the case, commenting that "this court has not the power or expertise to simply examine or to determine the proper degree grade to which the claimant would have been entitled from the University of Bradford" and noting that Wogu should lodge an internal appeal with the University before bringing the matter back to court.