Legal cost fears over complaints

April 10, 1998

INCREASED stress on student contracts will land universities with big legal bills, warn the authors of a law guide for institutions.

Swansea Institute's acting principal David Warner, who compiled the guide, Higher Education and the Law, with David Palfreyman, bursar of New College Oxford, said even arbitration was unlikely to solve the growing problem of vexatious complaints.

"As we move legitimately into an area where issues about student concerns can be raised, we will move illegitimately into increased vexation," he said.

Universities fall victim to these kinds of complaints particularly easily, he said, because most students receive legal aid and are not deterred by the high cost of bringing a case. Meanwhile, universities that now seek legal advice even when dealing internally with a complaint are paying thousands of pounds to lawyers even before a case reaches court.

One institution represented at a recent seminar on governance has spent getting on for Pounds 10,000 in two years of wrangling with a student who complained he should have received a 2:1 rather than a 2:2.

Another has received 40 writs so far from a single litigant.

"We don't want to stop rightful complaints but to say there is another side of the coin," said Professor Warner.

"When you create a clearer means of complaint procedure you necessarily increase dramatically the number of complaints, and that costs money. We want a balance where rightful complaints are handled but we don't have everyone complaining."

Professor Warner and Mr Palfreyman say arbitration may be a step towards avoiding litigation.

They say institutions should also strive to be open, efficient and, as far as possible, above reproach.

Governors should act as if they are charity trustees even though the law may demand less of them.

"The best way to protect an institution is to apply the highest standards of care and attention, which means behaving as if it was a charity trusteeship," said Mr Palfreyman.

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