A graduate with a third-class degree has won the right to sue her former university for compensation after she lost most of her final-year course work during a computer failure.
Joanne Clark, who in 1995 was a humanities student at Lincolnshire and Humberside University, had not made back-up copies when her father's computer crashed just days before the deadline.
She was preparing a presentation on Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire but all she was able to submit by the deadline were notes copied from a textbook. The university exam board classed this as plagiarism and failed the work. The university's policy allowed a maximum third-class degree grade to all resitting honours students.
Last week, three appeal court judges said Ms Clark's oversight was a mistake.
They upheld her claims that the university had breached its own regulations during its handling of her case.
Lord Justice Sedley told the Civil Appeal Court in London: "She made the mistake many of us make once, and only once. She failed to make a back-up copy of her work."
Lord Justice Sedley ruled that universities are not legally immune from breach of contract claims brought by students, overturning a ruling by Judge Walker, sitting at Halifax County Court last year. Lord Justice Sedley said courts "were well able to adjudicate" in such matters.
However, Derek Crothall, ULH's pro vice-chancellor, does not believe that the ruling is an invitation to students to take up contractual disputes.
"The judgment largely discourages students from going to the law. They should make all efforts to resolve the matter internally, something that we are willing to work towards."
The case will proceed to a full trial if Ms Clark and the university cannot reach an agreement.
Mr Crothall said that Ms Clark's exam papers will be remarked and the final grade reconsidered.
Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, said the case had raised issues of "general importance", but added that courts are "far from the ideal forum" for the university complaints system.
The National Union of Students agreed that universities need to honour their contractual agreements with students.
A spokesperson said: "If institutions want to avoid becoming involved in legal cases then they would do well to ensure the fair and smooth running of their internal complaints procedures and offer access to genuine external redress."