No more visits from bumbling bishops, lawyer demands

October 15, 1999

A national panel of experts should replace the ancient visitor as the investigator of student and staff complaints in old universities, legal experts have argued.

Nick Saunders, director of Eversheds education law group, said that the ancient system, where a "visitor" presides over staff and student complaints in universities with a royal charter, should be reformed to "bring it up to date".

The ancient system which, for example, allows the Bishop of Durham to act as visitor for Durham University, has had to face growing calls for its abolition. Lawyers have suggested that the system may contravene the European Convention of Human Rights.

Although ministers are reported to have conceded the visitor system is outdated, there are no plans to abolish it.

Speaking after a seminar on the future of the visitor at Pembroke College, Cambridge, last week, Mr Saunders said a panel of experts could conduct investigations on behalf of the visitor. He said: "I'm talking about reforming visitorial jurisdiction rather than replacing it. The difficulties associated with the visitor - especially perceptions that the system lacks independence - can be removed by reform of the procedures.

"A panel of people with knowledge of higher education could be

appointed as assessors, and

they could do the investigating and report to the visitor."

Mr Saunders said that there should be a code of practice for visitors to improve procedures. "There have been allegations that visitors take too long to arrive at decisions, do not always give reasons and do not make their decisions public. These have been valid criticisms. We would propose a code of practice that the visitor should sign up to."

Some delegates argued for an end to the visitor, extending the system where judicial review is currently available to non-charter universities. But Mr Saunders said that in many ways, visitorial jurisdiction was superior to judicial review.

He said: "Visitors can investigate matters of fact. They can look at all facts again and make decisions a court would never make."

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