School Bullying and the Law Anti-Bullying Network

Return What is the law on bullying in school?

Pupils have the right to be educated in an atmosphere which is free from fear. Head teachers and others responsible for running schools have a duty to do all that they reasonably can to protect pupils in their charge from intimidation, assault or harassment. This right and this duty are enshrined within documents such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 and the European Convention on Human Rights.

It should also be remembered that schools are subject to the law of the land. Assault, harassment and intimidation are offences, whatever the age of the perpetrator or victim.

Although there is no law which states that Scottish schools must have a specific anti-bullying policy, documents such as "Action Against Bullying", which was distributed to all schools in Scotland in 1992, contain a strong recommendation that they should. This recommendation has been endorsed by local authorities, the Scottish Office and its successor, the Scottish Executive.


When should bullying be referred to the police or to the Reporter to the Children's Hearing?

The legal system is rarely involved in dealing with school bullying. There are very good reasons for this. Less serious bullying can and should be dealt with within the school. By working together, parents, teachers, pupils and other members of the wider school community develop effective reactive strategies which can be implemented quickly. It is most important that bullying is resolved as quickly as possible before any serious damage is done to the personal development or education of the young people involved.

However there may be circumstances in which the police are called in, either as a last resort or because of the seriousness of an incident. Anyone can make a complaint about bullying to the police. Teachers, parents or other members of a school community may decide to do so if:

  • a bullying incident could have serious consequences for the victim - making a judgement about this can be very difficult because even incidents which are perceived as being minor by an observer can have potentially serious long-term consequences for a victim
  • other strategies have failed or are considered to be inappropriate because of the seriousness of what has happened and
  • there is a reasonable possibility that making such a report could make the bullying less likely to recur and produce an outcome that helps the victim.

There may be occasions when an episode of bullying involves incidents both in and out of school. In such circumstances it is vital for teachers and parents to work in co-operation with the police and other appropriate agencies such as social services or youth organisations.


What can the police do?

Schools and the police are developing new ways of working together pro-actively to prevent bullying. For example, in 1991 Lothian and Borders Police helped schools in the Liberton area of Edinburgh to produce a pack entitled, Speak Up. More recently Grampian Police have produced a CD-ROM for schools entitled, Learning for Life.

The police will investigate reports of serious incidents of physical bullying or harassment. If they are satisfied that an offence has been committed and that a person or persons who may be responsible have been identified and are under 16 they will normally send a report to the Reporter to the Children's Hearing. The Reporter will then decide whether or not to call a hearing to discuss the case. Sometimes a hearing will be called to discuss the welfare of a victim of bullying. This happened when one girl stopped attending school because she said she was so frightened of bullies at her school. The police may decide that there is insufficient evidence to justify a referral to the Reporter but officers may be able to help by speaking to the young people involved and to their families.


Can solicitors help?

A small number of people in Scotland have taken a claim against local authorities to court. In other countries such as Sweden, Ireland, England and Australia such cases have been more common. If a parent or an adult victim decides to take this course they should consult a solicitor for advice or contact the Scottish Child Law Centre for information (see below).


What are the advantages of taking legal action?
  • Victims and their families sometimes feel that their concerns are not being treated seriously. Involving a solicitor can change this.
  • A solicitor can provide support to individuals who may feel powerless against school authorities.
  • A court decision in favour of a victim could help that person to come to terms with their experiences by ruling that the school did not act properly.
  • The court may order that damages be paid as compensation for the harm suffered.
  • A high profile court case can help to clarify the duty of schools to protect victims. This could make it less likely that others will suffer in the future.

What are the disadvantages of taking legal action?
  • It can be very stressful. If the case is defended, an emotionally fragile victim may be subjected to lengthy cross-examination.
  • Any resolution will be severely delayed. Papers have to be prepared and witnesses who are willing to testify must be found. Meanwhile victims and their families will not be able to put the events behind them and get on with the rest of their lives.  Deborah Scott took Lothian Regional Council to court over bullying which occurred in 1988 and 1989. It was ten years before the case was heard.
  • The outcome is uncertain. Deborah Scott lost.
  • Enormous expense can be involved, especially if the claimant does not receive legal aid. Becky Walker lost her case and was ordered to pay Derby County Council's costs which were estimated at 30000. The judge in that case revealed that even if she had won she would only have been awarded 1250.
  • Once a head teacher knows that there is a possibility of legal action it will become more difficult for him or her to admit that mistakes may have been made and that a new approach is needed.

Important numbers
  • The Scottish Child Law Centre provides a free information service from 9.30am to 4.00pm Monday to Friday, except Thursday (on Thursday there is an evening advice service from 6.00pm to 7.30pm) on 0131 667 6333
  • The Law Society of Scotland 0131 226 7411
  • The Children's Legal Centre 01206 873820

Useful reading

Bullying: A Guide to the Law by Carolyn Hamilton in Bullying: A Practical Guide to Coping for Schools Edited by Michele Elliot, Published by: Pitman 1997. Although this is concerned with the law in England and Wales, it contains information and advice which also applies to Scotland. Different Acts of Parliament apply and there are important differences between the education systems north and south of the border but schools in all parts of the UK have similar legal duties of care.

Action Against Bullying - Drawing from Experience by Margaret Johnstone, Pamela Munn, and Lynne Edwards, Published by: Scottish Council for Research in Education 1992.

Bullying at School - Advice for Families by Andrew Mellor, Published by: Scottish Council for Research in Education 1997.

Return 13 January 2000

Any comments or questions about this information sheet should be directed to Andrew Mellor at the Anti-Bullying Network.