Lawyers to cash in if degrees derailed

April 21, 2006

Lawyers are using the increasingly bitter academic pay dispute to show students how they could sue institutions for "breach of contract" if their degree course is disrupted, it emerged this week.

Some legal firms are planning visits to universities while others are leafleting students and their parents urging them to consider legal action if exams are not marked and grades awarded as part of the boycott by academic staff.

The prospect of the dispute turning litigious increased as informal talks between the employers and the academic unions this week failed once again to even reach agreement to allow formal pay talks to start.

Emma Turner, a lawyer working for Sinclairs Solicitors in Cardiff, said her firm was planning to visit universities across the country to talk to students and their parents about their rights.

She said: "If students are paying for their course partly out of their own pockets, they will be concerned to make sure they are getting what they are contracted to have. There could be a case of breach of contract if the boycott is having a direct effect on their study."

John Brooks, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, said some legal firms had been leafleting students. He said students' changing attitudes were reflected in recent e-mail correspondence he had had with some of them.

"A number of students have expressed concerns about the contract they believe that they have with the university and what the situation would be if there were a delay in processing their exam papers," he said.

Several legal firms said they were preparing to handle extra student grievances with the introduction of top-up fees, but they were now expecting even more business if the threatened exams and assessment boycott dragged on into the summer.

Salima Malawi, a partner at Match Solicitors in London, said: "On the face of it, there is a potential case for breach of contract if the university is failing to fulfil its side of the bargain."

Elizabeth Davis, a solicitor at Blake Lapthorn Linnell in London, said: "It is inevitable that, if people feel they are not being given the opportunities they expect that they will look to see whether there is a liability and a claim to be made. There is clearly a risk related to the dispute, and the possible impact is high."

Jaswinder Gill, partner at Gill Solicitors in Harrow, said there was "no doubt" that students would consider legal action if they were hit badly by the boycott.

Roger Brown, vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, warned: "We have to be very careful that we do not end up in a situation where we are passing people in order to avoid a law suit."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said that union leaders "fully understand" students' frustrations and urged employers to make a pay offer "to save students from unnecessary fears about their studies and the universities from potential litigation".

The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association is insisting that the AUT and lecturers' union Natfhe suspend their on-going marking boycott before any formal pay talks next week, but the unions are refusing.

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

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