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Support worker who viewed pornography at school cannot sue for libel

7 July 2010

A school inclusion manager sacked for viewing pornography cannot sue for libel on the basis of a letter sent to the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) reporting what had happened.

The High Court heard that Claire Henderson, who worked at Haggerston School for Girls, was dismissed for gross misconduct after accessing and viewing pornographic images at school, including a video clip of a couple having sex in a car park.

She was also accused of sending an e-mail containing sexually explicit images to a colleague.

Giving judgment in Henderson v the Learning Trust [2010] EWHC 1651 (QB), Mr Justice Eady said the Learning Trust supplied educational services to the London borough of Hackney.

Eady said the letter was not sent to the ISA by the trust until it emerged that Henderson had moved to another school in London, into another post which involved working with children.

The letter stated that she had been dismissed from Haggerston school for gross misconduct “involving sexual harassment through the possession and display of explicit pornographic works at school”.

Henderson claimed the letter resulted in her being subjected to an investigation by the schools secretary under Section 142 of the Education Act 2002.

Eady J said that she accepted that the letter was covered by qualified privilege, but sought to defeat this “by reason of alleged malice”.

He said it seemed to him that the facts “point away from a probability of malice rather than towards it.”

Eady J went on: “As has been said on numerous occasions, such a plea is tantamount to one of fraud or dishonesty and must be pleaded with scrupulous care and specificity.

“As I have already noted, it is quite inappropriate to proceed on the basis that something may turn up (whether on disclosure of documents or at trial).

“The mere fact that Ms Cochrane contacted the ISA, or its predecessor, on a number of occasions is entirely consistent with her seeking guidance and an assurance that the second defendant was complying with its statutory obligations. It is no basis on which to infer the probability of malice.”

Mr Justice Eady said he was satisfied that there was “no realistic prospect” of Henderson defeating the trust’s defence of qualified privilege.

He ordered that the particulars of claim be struck out and dismissed the action.

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