A Safe School Environment and The Law of Negligence

DISCLAIMER. This document is written for general information only and does not constitute professional legal advice. The associated legal issues are complex and legislation varies from country to country. This document deals only with general principles and it cannot be relied upon it for the purpose of making legal decisions - a reader should seek their own professional legal advice. The author of this website accepts no responsibility should a person make a decision based upon information gained from reading this document or those reached via the links here.

Legal aspects of the concept of negligence cause much concern for practising teachers, and there is sometimes confusion and uncertainty in the profession, especially among teachers of subjects that hold a large workshop activity component.

Elements of Negligence.
Basically, for a legal action to be successful against an institution or an individual, fault must be established. An individual must have owed another a duty to take care to protect them from harm, and, by some act or omission, failed to do so.
So the first step in establishing negligence is to determine whether or not a duty of care was owed. It is generally safe to assume that a duty of care does exist for those in the charge of children, such as teachers in their classroom and throughout the school. Whether or not there has been a breach of that duty is what must therefore be established.

In order to establish whether or not the breach was made, the actuality of the care given by the defendant will be compared to the expected standard, and if a difference exists, that difference will constitute the breach of duty.
The process is generally fairly straightforward and the court will determine whether the defendant’s behaviour was a reasonable response to a reasonably foreseeable risk.
What does this mean in practical terms to you, as a practising teacher in a classroom or school workshop? Most schools are places where one could reasonably say that accidents are ‘waiting to happen.’ The courts recognise this and the mere fact that a serious injury may occur will not automatically result in a finding of breach of duty. The question the court will ask is whether the school took adequate precautions for the safety of those in its care. In the circumstances was it reasonable for the school to take some relatively simple precautions. Quite simply, you should ensure that you have a system in place that anticipates risk and provides precautions against that risk, and you need to be able to demonstrate that you have done this.
The Courts do make decisions based on realities and practicalities. If an accident occurred in circumstances where the teacher or school had foreseen a risk and had rules or procedures in place to mitigate that risk, and those rules were well enforced and suitable instruction had been implemented to control the risk, the court would likely find that the system in place was a safe one and was an appropriate response to a foreseeable risk, especially if there had been a system in place for several years, and no significant accidents had occurred.
Significant factors might be:

  • Established safety rules being in place
  • Existance of a history of safety
  • The speed with which events took place, and
  • Previously appropriate or inappropriate behaviour of the people involved in the incident.
Even if a breach of duty is established, liability may or may not be imposed depending on whether a causal link can be established between that breach and the actual loss or injury sustained.

The law of negligence is about ensuring that students (and staff) at a school are provided with an environment that is, as far as practicable, safe. If a school authority allows students access to potentially dangerous tools and equipment, then an effective system of usage instruction and supervision is expected. If there is no such system, then the teacher or the institution is much more likely to be attributed with liability.

Further Reading

Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (Victoria). Student Safety and Risk Management. Available at
San Diego Office of Education. Teachers Handbook. (Section 4 - Instruction, and Section 13 - Other Legal Concerns) Available at
Dennis Sleigh. Education Today. A question of negligence. Available at
Drew Hopkins. Australian Catholic University for The Victorian Institute of Teaching. The Legal Obligations of a Teacher. Available at
Helen Newnham. Edith Cowan University. When is a teacher or school liable in negligence?. Available at
Julie. K. Underwood. Liability of School Districts and School Personnel for Negligence. Available at
Ronald B. Standler. Injuries in School/College Laboratories in USA. Available at
Edgar Snyder & Associates Statute of Limitations by State. (US) Available at
Education Encyclopedia - Liability of School Districts and School Personnel for Negligence - Duty, Breach of Duty, Injury, Causation, Defenses, Malpractice. US) Available at Liability of School Districts and School Personnel for Negligence - Duty, Breach of Duty, Injury, Causation, Defenses, Malpractice