Parent sues school for refusing to return confiscated phone for three months

A file image of an Apple iPhone 7.
A file image of an Apple iPhone 7.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Should a school hang on to a confiscated phone for three months?

This issue has reached the courts here after a parent felt that the penalty was too harsh. The parent is suing a secondary school principal for damages but has not succeeded in getting the school to return the phone.

The parent's request to have the phone returned immediately was turned down by District Judge Clement Julien Tan. The judge ruled that the principal was justified in holding on to the phone, as the school rules had made it clear that any student caught using a phone during school hours will have it confiscated for at least three months.

The boy met the principal on March 21 and admitted that he had used an Apple iPhone 7 during school hours on March 8. The phone was confiscated and the SIM card returned along with a receipt stating that it could be retrieved in three months' time.

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Later in the evening of March 21, the parent wrote to the principal to say that the phone was his and he wanted it back.

He added that "a three-month confiscation is disproportionate to the offence" and that his son had assured him that he would not break the rule on phone use again.

Failing to get a reply, he took the principal of the well-known secondary school to court.

The father, represented by lawyer Andrew Hanam, is claiming that retaining the phone amounts to the tort of conversion - which involves denying a person's rights to his property. He asked the court to get the school to return the phone while the case is being decided.

The principal's lawyer Alfonso Ang said that the claim is "frivolous and vexatious" and pointed out that the principal is responsible for overseeing student discipline based on regulations.

He also highlighted that the parent and son had both been told that the use of phones was banned.

District Judge Tan, who heard the application on April 28, said the principal was simply following the rules. He also rejected the parent's contention that he, personally, is not bound by the school rules as there is no contract between him and the principal.

"Such a position is, in my view, untenable," said District Judge Tan, in dismissing the application. The parent, he pointed out in judgment grounds obtained by The Straits Times on Tuesday (June 6), knew about the rules on phone use and if he had an issue with it, "could have enrolled his son in another school".

The judge added that the father had not "established any special circumstances in the present case" to enable the interim injunction to succeed. He also pointed out having the phone returned early defeats the school's rule against phone use.

"I accept that there may be a risk that until the matter is fully and finally disposed of, the school may be faced with demands from parents or guardians for the return of confiscated phones. This may also send a wrong signal to the students that they can use their mobile phones during school hours with impunity, thus rendering the Phone Rule otiose, however temporarily this might be so."