The Inns of Court School of Law is accused of undermining the visitorial process designed to ensure individuals who believe they are victims of injustice have a right of appeal to an external body without the expense of formal legal proceedings.
The Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards is supporting the case of Cecilia Hulse, a mature student, who is petitioning the Council of Legal Education for an alleged breach of natural justice.
Ms Hulse was warned that if her case failed, she could face costs of Pounds 50,000 to Pounds 100,000. This would deter most petitioners, however strong their case, and is against the spirit of the visitorial process, argues CAFAS.
The CLE says it is policy to advise students that they may be liable to pay court costs only when similar previous appeals have failed. "Where there has already been a test case where the decision was in our favour and a student comes along with a virtually identical case and they insist on pursuing it we feel it is only fair to warn them they may be liable for costs," said John Taylor, secretary of the CLE.
The Bar School's vocational course came under fire in April last year from an equal opportunities committee set up to investigate complaints by students.
A report from the committee, headed by Dame Jocelyn Barrow, called for policy changes to improve course structure.
Ms Hulse began the vocational course in 1991 when it was just two years old. During her first term she missed some tuition because of domestic cicumstances. She failed a written assignment by one mark and then failed her finals. This occurred at the end of a year in which, due to the high number of failures, some students were waved through if they passed their coursework or had "minor failures". These criteria have now been changed significantly.
Ms Hulse resat the following year and failed by the same two marks. She then went before the Barrow committee which found no evidence of discrimination in her case but nonetheless recommended that the CLE consider her for a "deemed pass". The CLE declined six months later.
In March 1994 she notified the CLE and the visitor that she would be petitioning against the decision and in August was contacted by the CLE's solicitor and told informally that the petition would be fought and because of the need to use expert witnesses it would be a costly defence.
The petition was a "root and branch" criticism of the course and a figure of Pounds 50,000-Pounds 100,000 was mentioned informally by the CLE's solicitor. Her petition is based on the grounds that the decision to uphold a failure, even after the rules have changed, is a breach of natural justice.
Ms Hulse said: "The irony is that under the new rules I would have passed the course. Surely students like me who have made complaints should have the benefit of retrospective changes. It is only because we risked everything that they have even considered the changes."
Ms Hulse has no doubt she wishes to go on with her fight. But she is confounded by the threat of costs which, she says, make the common law role of the visitor "meaningless".
The CLE stressed that after a year in which it had incurred legal costs of Pounds 228,000, including costs for cases brought against it by students, it could not afford to foot the bill for non-test cases. "We have to remember we are an educational charity and we should not be directing our resources to litigation," said Mr Taylor.
CAFAS is questioning whether the decision about the "reasonableness" of a case should be left to the defendant. "If it is allowed that the school has the right to seek costs, other institutions of higher education will no doubt follow suit."