Legal bills called to account

July 3, 1998

IT IS unacceptable that universities spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on legal fees to fight student and staff disputes without proper accountability, the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards has told the National Audit Office.

In a letter to comptroller and auditor-general, Sir John Bourne, copied to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, CAFAS has called for a "wide-ranging inquiry" into universities' legal expenditure, "with a view to establishing a code of practice".

CAFAS writes: "At a time when universities are being asked to make substantial cuts in their expenditure, we find it unacceptable that such sums should be being spent by university after university, when there is no code of practice, when such expenditure is rarely made explicit in the annual accounts and when it is often unnecessary."

CAFAS said such unaccountable expenditure repeatedly comes to its notice during case work but there are no guidelines to establish the circumstances in which "universities may properly cover the legal expenses of their senior officers while giving no help to the student or staff complainant".

CAFAS welcomed recent initiatives to keep disputes out of the courts. A Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals report, by Clive Booth, former vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, recommended a system of independent dispute resolution, which would avoid expensive litigation.

But the Booth report confined itself to student complaints and arbitration, CAFAS said. CAFAS cited the case of its member, Gill Evans, who has been in dispute with Cambridge University over its promotion procedures.

Cambridge has so far spent at least Pounds 125,000 on its legal case against Dr Evans, and the figure rises with each letter she receives from the vice-chancellor, via the university solicitors.

"Cambridge has for many years allowed its principal administrative officers to conduct litigation on behalf of the university without reporting even the fact that they were doing so and without accounting for the expenditure they were authorising," said CAFAS.

Tim Meade, registrar at Cambridge, said: "If CAFAS is concerned that Cambridge is wasting public money, it should recognise that we have been responding to action initiated against it by a CAFAS member, Dr Evans. If Dr Evans was raising fewer cases we would be spending a lot less.

"Obviously court is not the right place to sort most of these issues out, and we would prefer alternative methods, but when the university's procedures are attacked, and we believe we have behaved fairly and properly, it is only proper that we should mount a defence."

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