How a law faculty got court out

August 1, 1997

It is not the done thing for a law lecturer to take his department to court, but Asif Qureshi has dared to do just that. Alison Utley reports

It is one thing for, say, a geographer to challenge his university through the courts. It is quite another for an academic lawyer. Lawyers inhabit a small world and they tend to close ranks. "The measure of academic lawyers is not so much the insight they provide into justice but the manner in which they engage in it,'' says Asif Qureshi, who should know.

Judged by his own measure, Qureshi rates highly. An academic lawyer, he has been struggling for justice for the last five years. A tribunal has concluded that he was, as he claimed, victimised and discriminated against by his employer. The fact that the respondent was the law faculty at Manchester University, a leading centre for anti-discrimination law, makes the victory doubly significant.

The irony that the late Harry Street, professor of law at Manchester, was involved in drafting the Race Relations Act, is not lost on Qureshi. He believes the university's overriding concern throughout the proceedings has been face-saving. Yet he is careful not to use the judgment as a tool of personal revenge against a department which the tribunal said had unlawfully discriminated against him during promotion rounds and subsequently victimised him several times.

He prefers to stress wider consequences, hoping others will gain the courage needed to challenge the system. "In litigation it is often said there are no winners but in discrimination cases I believe there should be winners so that lessons are widely learnt, and because the case against discrimination is overwhelming."

Qureshi's victory has come at a high price. During the first tribunal hearing a threatening letter urging him to go back to Pakistan arrived at his home, followed by human excrement. His windows were also smeared with excrement. He does not know who was responsible but both events took place at critical junctures during the dispute.

Even now, after the tribunal's vindication of his case, Qureshi, a lecturer in international law with degrees from the University of London and the LSE, says the university continues to haggle over the terms it is prepared to offer him. In February, before his successful tribunal hearing, he says he was offered a substantial sum and promotion to reader in return for his resignation. Qureshi rejected the deal. The latest offer, made after his victory, is significantly less and, in his view, inadequate. "The university said that even if I succeeded the only solution was severance of my employment."

Qureshi, 41, is a reserved man who acknowledges the anguish the case has caused him. Challenging the system while continuing to be employed within it posed distressing difficulties. "The legal profession is very close-knit and mine was a lone battle,'' he says. "The obstacles to fighting for reform from within the institution are formidable, but those who choose to merge with the system, those who shy away from breaking ranks, are seriously lacking in intellect and delude themselves that they are part of the system."

The university, his employer for 11 years, disputed that it had overlooked Qureshi for promotion to senior lectureships several times because of his race. It had serious back-up - five professors and two senior lecturers gave evidence on the university's behalf.

The first tribunal hearing in 1994 produced a highly unusual 70-page judgment. Although the university was criticised, the tribunal did not uphold more than a minor element of Qureshi's case. Against all the odds he appealed and won a fresh hearing.

The second tribunal, which had different members to the first, reversed the earlier decision and found that the university unlawfully discriminated against Qureshi during promotion rounds in 1992, 1993 and 1994. He was also victimised a number of times. The tribunal declared that the university displayed "a serious failure to understand concepts of equal opportunities'' when it asked Qureshi to apologise following a complaint about discriminatory practice in the appointment of chairs. The tribunal was also "astonished'' that during a promotion round in 1992 all eight members of a faculty review panel claimed to have read the CV's of all applicants, but none apparently noticed that copies of Qureshi's CV had four pages missing. "I believe we are all capable of prejudice in varying degrees,'' Qureshi says. "And we may even succumb to victimising. What is critical, however, is that we recognise our capacity to do this."

The tribunal found the university took self-righteous stands, and that its assessment of teaching "allowed subjectivity a free reign''. The excuse was the notion of academic judgement. "There are several examples where the response of the faculty and also the university itself to equal opportunities issues was negative, inadequate, even hostile,'' says the judgment.

Qureshi describes the criteria for promotion as byzantine. He is convinced that government funding of universities should be dependent not only on the quality of teaching and research but also upon the manner and spirit with which they approach equal opportunities.

The university will not discuss the case publicly, although it says its equal opportunities policies are now under review. Is this too late for Qureshi? "While I feel I have been robbed of some of the joy that comes from promotion, I feel in some respects my victory can be considered a more fulfilling endeavour,'' he says. "And I would do it again."

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