Weir v Geelong Grammar School [2012] VCAT 1736

Background Facts

The Plaintiff sued Geelong Grammar School on the basis that inadequate education supplied by the school precluded her from acceptance to study law at Sydney University.

The Plaintiff put some emphasis on the school’s marketing material, which used adjectives such as “exceptional”, and submitted that the high fees charged by the prestigious school implied some level of excellence in their teaching.

The Law

The claim proceeded against the school in breach of contract and on the basis of misrepresentation and unconscionability.

As to the terms of the contract, the Administrative Tribunal noted at paragraph 159:

“The School contracted to provide its resources to Rose whilst she was a student. It did so.

The School did not contract to get Rose into Law at Sydney University. It did not contract to create a special curriculum for Rose, to place her in a gifted and talented program, to dedicate special resources to Rose over and above the high level of resources that it made available to its other students. The School did not contract to supply individual tuition. It is a school…By publicising a “Positive Education” curriculum the School was not contracting to have Rose achieve a particular set of results.”

With respect to allegations that the school acted unconscionably, or made misrepresentations, the Administrative Tribunal noted “the School published a brochure and it seems to be a feature of the private education market that schools do so…” Essentially the Court found that the brochure was mere puffery and did not amount to any representations which could be shown to have been breached.

The Tribunal did this make this comment:-

“One can imagine circumstances in which an educational institution acted unconscionably: young students at a disadvantage; powerful staff abusing their authority and the like. On the evidence, nothing of the kind happened here. Rose did not succeed in attaining high marks. The School provided support in a number of ways. The School staff had the qualifications to make judgments about how to teach students and at what levels to do so; it required students to do school work and to submit work for assessment; and to facilitate students’ learning it required students to attend classes with the relevant books and equipment…The School imposed some disciplinary measures such as internal detentions, but there is no evidence to the effect that these measures were excessive or that other students were not treated in the same way. There is no basis for the allegation of unconscionable conduct.”1

The Court was troubled by a termination letter from the school which in the eyes of the Tribunal contains some incendiary language such as “I fear that we seem to be unable to assist (Rose)”, “what is needed for Rose to manage her life”, “critically concerned for her health and well being”, and other expressions. It was said that there was no doubt this would be distressing to a parent. However, it was said this was not a case in which the parents sued for nervous shock and the Tribunal noted that it was “expect that in future letters which express the School’s concern about a student will be drafted in a different tone”.

It was alleged that the school wrongfully terminated Rose’s enrolment however, the Tribunal said that this claim was not made out. The Court noting that:

“First, whilst there may have been an expectation that Rose would stay at the School, it was not a term of the contract that this would occur. Secondly, on the evidence the School did not wrongfully terminate the contract. A basic principle of contract law is that a contract may be determined by breach. If one party commits a serious breach of the contract, the other party may accept it as a repudiation of the contract and bring the contract to an end. Alternatively that party can elect not to bring the contract to an end”.

In any event, it was found that the contract was determined by agreement that the Plaintiff was simply unhappy at the school, and by mutual decision it was agreed that she need not return, and her enrolment would come to an end.

The Court ultimately noting that “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 assumption”.

Implications

In the United Kingdom the courts have been happy to find a school owes a duty to an under performing student2, however because of such imponderables such as outside influences, and individual learning aptitudes, the notion there is a general duty on schools has been rejected outright in US.

Obviously, this was an Administrative Tribunal decision and this rather silly claim was summarily dismissed. What is of interest of course is that there was no discussion by the Tribunal of there being any claim being brought. a superior Australian

2 Bedfordshire CC [1995] 2 AC 33 v San Francisco United Court will be prepared to entertain such a claim, perhaps if one is brought on better evidential grounds, or whether there will be the broad brush prohibition put in place as is presently the case in the United States.3