Ask the panel

August 10, 2007

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

'I am taking a field trip to a developing country and I'm worried about the legal implications if something goes wrong. What if one of my students is injured while in my care? Might I be liable, as I will be taking them into some primitive territory?'

A spokesman for the University and College Union says: "The first issue that you will need to clarify is the purpose of the planned field trip and your employer's view of your responsibilities.

"The extent of your potential liability depends on whether the trip is a course requirement or voluntary, whether its purposes are educational or recreational and whether the trip was sanctioned by your university. For example, depending on the age and circumstances of the students, you could potentially find yourself in loco parentis.

"You should seek a written statement from your employer that outlines the extent of your responsibilities towards your students on this trip, including your legal liabilities. If no such statement is forthcoming, it is inadvisable for you to proceed with the field trip.

"The second issue is that you should ensure that a detailed risk assessment of the proposed field trip is completed before you embark. Your university is likely to have a health and safety officer who should be able to give you detailed advice in relation to your planned trip.

"It would also be reasonable to share your risk assessment with the students before your departure so that they can also take some responsibility for the safety of themselves and their peers.

"Finally, you should confirm that you have adequate insurance in place before embarking on the trip. This should include adequate travel insurance coverage for you and the students to make certain that you will be covered for medical assistance even in a remote location.

"You should also make sure that you have indemnity insurance, which would cover your legal costs should any unfortunate incident take place that results in legal action. Your university should ensure that this cover is in place; if it does not provide this cover, you should not take the field trip."

Gill Evans, project leader of the Hefce-funded project Improving Dispute Resolution ( www.staffs.ac.uk/idr ), says: "Is this field trip one of the requirements for the degree course these students are following? If so, the institution must make sure that it is not placing students at disproportionate risk and that enough experienced staff accompany the party. You should not agree to go unless you have made careful checks about this.

"If it is an educational trip, whether required as part of the course or voluntary, you should get a clear statement in writing on behalf of the institution regarding liability if anything should go wrong. There should be indemnity insurance provided by your insurers. The extent of your own responsibility to make sure the students are safe must be put in writing, too, and agreed by you and your employer.

"You should ensure that the students, and their parents if any of them are under 18, receive a thorough briefing about what is planned and the risks and dangers. The students will need to sign appropriate undertakings about their behaviour, and the institution should pay for them to receive independent advice before they are asked to sign anything."

A spokesperson for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association says: "There are many issues that a field trip organiser needs to consider. Among them are the legal implications if an incident were to occur and the fact that your employer is vicariously liable for your actions when undertaken in the course of your work.

"Ucea, in conjunction with the Universities Safety and Health Association, produced revised guidance on safety in fieldwork in 2005. If you were to follow this guidance, you would go a long way toward providing a safe trip and also avoiding many of the pitfalls that can occur when working in the field.

"See the Ucea website under 'Publications' to obtain a copy of the guidance: www.ucea.ac.uk/ "

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, Research Councils UK and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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