Cost to the public

October 16, 1998

Cambridge University's recent High Court action against Gillian Evans (THES, October 9) demonstrates its willingness to pursue Dr Evans despite the cost to the taxpayer. In recovering one-day's legal costs, Cambridge incurred a further two days' costs, a net loss of one day's costs.

Clearly, promotion-related disputes are most economically dealt with outside the courts. Indeed, Dr Evans had accepted the independent mediation of Sir Brian Neill but Cambridge did not, leaving Dr Evans no alternative but to seek a judicial review.

This case highlights a widespread problem. Many of our members report that their universities are spending considerable sums on legal expenses resulting from litigation involving their employees and students. Most of these disputes would be more effectively and more economically dealt with internally.

Most British universities now have explicit equal opportunities policies, anti-harassment regulations and grievance procedures for dispute resolution; why then should so many seek justice outside their universities?

The answer is that the mere existence of these procedures is not sufficient to ensure a just hearing or a discrimination-free work or study experience. This is because the application of these rules and procedures is subject to so much discretionary power and because when internal inquiries are conducted, the principles of natural justice are often flagrantly ignored.

We estimate that some universities spend as much as Pounds 1 million a year on legal expenses as a result of disputes that could have been handled internally. Few make this explicit in their annual accounts by distinguishing it from routine legal expenses.

It is now time for the funding bodies to act to ensure that public funds are not being wasted by the failure of universities to apply internal rules and procedures fairly and effectively.

David Heathcote Secretary, Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards

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