Appeal court pushes for mediation of stress claims

The Court of Appeal has said that work-induced stress claims should be mediated rather than proceeding to a costly trial.

In Vahidi v Fairstead House School Trust, the court said that there had already been extensive guidance on stress claims and the principles to be applied were settled. As a result, mediation was preferable to trial.

The claimant (V) had worked for 21 years as a reception class teacher reaching assistant head level. Following a routine inspection, new teaching methods were recommended for the reception children, which the new headmistress (B) had been informed V might resist.

A series of incidents led V to believe that B wanted to sideline her and ultimately end her employment. Issues also arose regarding V's compliance with the new teaching methods. Subsequently she became depressed and was hospitalised.

During V's subsequent return to work, the school supported her both with assistants and through weekly meetings. The school noticed a deterioration in health but was aware the claimant was under regular medical review. After a few weeks V left and never returned.

At first instance the judge found that, in accordance with Walker v Northumberland, the school could not be liable for the first breakdown as it was not foreseeable. That was not appealed. With regard to the second breakdown the judge agreed that there was a foreseeable risk but the school had not breached its duty of care to V.

On appeal, V argued that the support meetings and the monitoring were insufficient; that the school had failed to take medical advice on the deterioration in her health and that they should have sent her home.

The Court of Appeal disagreed, describing the allegation of failure to provide support a "travesty". "Equally hopeless" was the response to the alleged failure to react to her deterioration and to seek further medical advice. It suggested that, if the school had sent V home when she was presenting herself as fit for work, their action would have been perceived as hostile.

Longmore LJ stressed that courts have to be very careful not to conclude that the only way an employer can perform its duty is by sending a claimant home, thereby prohibiting him or her from doing their work.

' Report by Paula Jefferson, a litigation associate with national law firm Beachcroft Wansbroughs.