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Contract law offers framework for legal relationship between pupils and schools

When a pupil applies for a place at a school and is admitted, a legal relationship is established between them. The exact nature of this legal relationship however is unclear. The law is silent in this area and case law provides no definite answer either. According to PhD Candidate Stijn Voskamp, contract law can offer a framework for the assessment of the legal relationship between schools and pupils and possibly also parents. Voskamp conducted research on the application of contract law doctrines to educational relationships and defends her doctoral thesis on 13 December.

The exact nature of the legal relationship between pupils and schools is no cut-and-dried case. However, there is a need for a clear framework, Voskamp says. 'The interpretation of the legal relationship has become more relevant in recent years. When a conflict with a school arises, parents and pupils are increasingly turning to the courts.' According to the researcher this is apparent from items in the news. 'The legal relationship between pupils, schools and parents is becoming more business-like and is being interpreted more in terms of legal rules. Parents and pupils are demanding access to the school or claiming damages, for example because of insufficient quality in education. The foundation for these claims is not always clear.'

Education contract

In the literature that deals with the law on education, both civil law and administrative law come into play in the legal relationship between a pupil and school,  or a combination of both. In her research, Voskamp chose a civil law - or more specifically a contract law - perspective. Her starting point was that the legal relationship can be qualified as a contract: an education contract. 'I hope with this dissertation to have defined what a contract law angle of approach implies or can imply. On the basis of insights obtained, the choice or rejection of a private law contract can have a more solid foundation.'

Voskamp applied in her research a number of key doctrines from contract law in the context of education. 'I also observed public law standards from, for example, education legislation - such as the Compulsory Education Act,  the Primary Education Act and the Secondary Education Act. It was then possible to consider what contract law instruments can offer in an educational relationship.'

Stijn Voskamp

Certainty

The researcher concludes that contract law can certainly offer a framework that can be applied in an educational relationship. 'This framework can provide certainty in the assessment of the legal relationship between schools, pupils and parents, for example when establishing the rights and obligations of parties, from the formation to the conclusion of the legal relationship. This framework is lacking in a noncontractual approach to this legal relationship.'

Voskamp goes as far as to raise the starting point of the research - the assumption that an education contract exists - to the starting point for the legal relationship between schools, pupils and possibly parents. ‘Where this book offers no definite answer to the question whether the legal relationship is a contract, it does offer leads for the choice of the contract.’

Through her research, Voskamp hopes to reach people who are involved in education law. 'Last month I was invited to give a presentation at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Those present found the contract law perspective interesting. Lawyers and judges may also find the application of the doctrines useful in their approach to and assessment of disputes between pupils, parents and schools in the future.'

Supervisor Professor  A.G. Castermans on Stijn Voskamp’s research:

'The outcome of Stijn Voskamp’s research is contrary to the view I had on the usefulness of contracts for schools and pupils. I had visions of default notices flying back and forth between schools and homes. Stijn Voskamp demonstrates that contact law can offer an elaborate framework which can take account of the rights of the child, funding regulations and education interests.'

Text: Floris van den Driesche
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