Supreme Court urges school and special needs assistant to come to an agreement

Supreme Court urges school and special needs assistant to come to an agreement

The Supreme Court has urged a school and woman who worked for it as a special needs assistant to come to an agreement on whether she should repay €100,000 she received as part of a €255,000 award which was later overturned, writes Ann O'Loughlin.

Una Ruffley won the award against the board of St Anne's School for children with intellectual disabilities, Curragh, Co Kildare, in the High Court in 2014.

The school appealed but was required to pay her part of the award, €100,000, in order to bring the appeal.

The school won in the Court of Appeal which overturned the award.

She then brought an appeal to the Supreme Court which yesterday upheld the appeal court's decision.

A seven-judge Supreme Court agreed with the 2-1 Court of Appeal decision that this was not a case which fitted squarely into the core understanding of bullying at work.

However, Mr Justice O'Donnell said on behalf of the Supreme Court, the difficulties in this case were not limited to the findings of fact or what the legal definition of bullying was.

He said all the judges who heard this matter agreed the disciplinary procedures followed by the school were inadequate and impermissible.

While Mr Justice O'Donnell believed the matters alleged in this case did not give rise to a successful claim for bullying, the level of disagreement among those judges demonstrated it was by no means clear-cut.

In those circumstances, it may be necessary to hear argument in relation to consequential orders.

However, he said, he would be slow to order she repay the €100,000 or pay costs of the case.

It may be necessary to reflect on the fact she would have been successful if she had brought a case over the flawed disciplinary procedures.

In the circumstances, including that Ms Ruffley has not worked since she left St Anne's in 2010 and suffered the stresses of seven years of litigation, it would be "desirable that the parties could reach their own agreement" on these matters. However, if they did not, the court would hear argument on it.

Mr Justice Peter Charleton, in a concurring judgment, also said while there was not a finding of bullying, in his view Ms Ruffley would be entitled to her costs.

The case arose out of an incident on September 14, 2009, when Ms Ruffley was with a pupil in the school's "sensory room" which is used for one-to-one development of a child's sensory perception through music, vibration, movement, light and colour.

At issue was whether it was normal practice that the door to the room should be locked or just closed as it generally accepted that the sensory programme should be done without interruption. Ms Ruffley said it was practice to lock it.

The court heard when the pupil Ms Ruffley was dealing with that day fell asleep, she phoned the class teacher who told her to allow him sleep for another 20 minutes. The child, who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, had a tendency to run from room to room when equipment was being set up.

The principal, Pauline Dempsey, tried to gain entry three times before Ms Ruffley opened the door which later gave rise to disciplinary moves against her.

Ms Dempsey brought the door locking incident to the board which recommended Mr Ruffley receive warning and her next salary increment be deferred.

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