Do Parents of Children Abused at School have a Claim for a Refund of Fees?

A woman has recently spoken publicly about being refunded the tuition fee’s she spent sending her son to an elite private school in Queensland for five years from 1989.

Her son was sexually abused at the school and has since attempted suicide. She initially sent letters to the school in 2010 which were rejected, however her claim was recently reviewed. The school has now decided to reimburse her for the cost of all tuition fees, adjusted for inflation, in the amount of $30,988.

The woman stated that she was ‘not asking for ‘compensation’ or any financial settlement to address the pain and suffering my family have endured’, the money paid to her was ‘a ­refund for a faulty product or ­service, not a dollar more or less’.

The faulty service in question was the quality of pastoral care provided by the school to her son. The woman’s criticisms of the school included its ‘failure to provide the product or service you advertised’ – being the provision of pastoral care to its students. A viewpoint which looks at the issue as a contractual obligations between a purchaser and the provider of a service.

This raises the question of whether schools can be liable for misleading and deceptive conduct, which is prohibited under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), if services aren’t delivered as advertised.

Private Schools provide assurances through their website, in person and/or in advertising materials that they have certain qualities as an education provider, in order for parents to choose their school over others. So if a school claims in an advertisement that it ensures the safety and wellbeing of all students and fails to take necessary, reasonable steps to protect its students from harm, it is reasonable to argue that it can be held liable under the ACL.

Unfortunately, as the refund in this circumstance was a private decision, there is no judicial guidance as to what constitutes a “faulty education”.

While the situation reported was resolved privately, without any evidence that the refund was made on legal grounds, it does raise several significant issues regarding the provision of education and pastoral care services by schools.

We hope that the woman’s decision to speak publically about the agreement could lead to an increase in parents pursuing a similar path with other institutions.

Accordingly, Koffels is currently investigating this issue with experts in the field and will provide further information in due course.

by William Yeo