Exeter University has been ordered to pay almost £63,000 to a PhD student who abandoned his research into assisted suicides after a dispute with his departmental ethics committee over the confidential nature of his work.
The lord chancellor, as Exeter University's visitor, took the unprecedented step of awarding compensation to Russel Ogden, a Canadian criminologist who studied in the UK between 1995 and 1998.
Mr Ogden had complained about "irregularities" in the university's support for his research and about poor supervision.
He had interviewed more than 100 people in the UK, Canada, the Netherlands and the US to explore assisted suicide and euthanasia among people with Aids.
This revealed multiple cases of individuals covertly helping terminally ill patients to die. Mr Ogden could persuade them to speak only on condition of absolute confidentiality as some might have faced criminal proceedings.
He said this policy was approved by the department of sociology ethics committee. But two years after his work started, he learnt that the committee was not prepared to support him against any legal bid to force him to reveal his sources.
The lord chancellor noted that this amounted to "a denial that the university has any responsibility to assist Mr Ogden in upholding academic freedom".
According to Mr Ogden, Exeter compromised his research and his academic freedom. He quit the university as a result in 1998.
The following year, a committee of inquiry at Exeter upheld four of his nine complaints, stating: "The ethical approval of Mr Ogden's PhD research was mishandled and demonstrated serious incompetence and subsequent mismanagement by the department."
But when the university senate declined to offer him any redress, Mr Ogden took his complaint to the visitor.
The lord chancellor agreed the university's actions had damaged Mr Ogden's research to an extent that it could not be completed. But he rejected Mr Ogden's claim for £235,849 as "wholly unrealistic".
An Exeter spokesman said the case raised complex and unusual issues and revealed a gap in the university's ethical approval policy. "A new policy has since been put into force to avoid this problem occurring again," he said.
"The sum set by the lord chancellor - £62,8 - seems to us to be a fair settlement. We also agree with the lord chancellor that there were faults on both sides in this case, but we would nevertheless like to apologise to Mr Ogden for the inconvenience caused and we wish him well with his future career."
But Mr Ogden, who now teaches criminology at Kwantlen University College in Canada, said he was unhappy with the result.
"Years of my life were squandered solely because of Exeter's refusal to keep its written commitments and follow its own policies," he said.
No ring of confidence