Students urge UCL to settle Covid lawsuit after court ruling

Judge blocks attempts to force breach of contract claim to be dealt with by OIA as more than 100,000 students plan similar action

July 17, 2023
Source: iStock

Students taking legal action against UCL for the teaching they received during strikes and the pandemic have called on the institution to settle the case after claiming an initial victory in the courts.

UCL – which has been accused of a “breach of contract” in a lawsuit that might have implications for 100 other providers – argued at a hearing in May that the claim brought by 924 of its students should be dealt with by its own internal procedures and then the sector ombudsman, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), before being considered by the court.

But in a written judgment issued on 17 July, Judge Barbara Fontaine said she would not be ruling that the claimants be forced down this route.

She has, however, granted an eight-month stay in proceedings to allow the parties to “engage constructively in some form of ADR [alternative dispute resolution]”, which should involve “serious attempts by both parties to find a compromise”.

Lawyers representing Student Group Claim – the organisation that instigated the legal action – said they now hoped UCL would “engage constructively in settlement discussions” or face a full trial.

The university had asked for an indefinite stay in proceedings “unless and until the OIA’s statutory complaints process has run its course and has been unable to resolve the complaints”.

Lawyers for the claimants argued that the ombudsman would struggle to deal with the volume of complaints, with 2,140 more students coming forward to add their names to the claim since it was first filed.

In her judgment, Judge Fontaine said that “some of the claimants’ concerns about the OIA scheme are valid”.

An assessment of its previous decisions showed the watchdog’s likely approach would be “to assess whether UCL acted reasonably in relation to the challenges of strike action and the Covid pandemic”, but not “whether it was reasonable for UCL to do so without providing an adjustment to the fees charged for the period of online teaching and where there was no physical access to resources” – something that was at the crux of the current case.

She added that UCL had not provided detailed information “as to how they and the OIA would plan to deal with a large volume of complaints” and the OIA’s 2022 annual report was “not encouraging, as it shows that it has never dealt with this level of complaints before”.

The judge said the OIA could still play a role in resolving the case if it could show it had sufficient resources, but she suggested the parties seek some other form of mediation in order to avoid high legal costs. 

“I expect the parties to adopt a more consensual approach than has been the case previously, and do their best to use this time productively,” Judge Fontaine said.

Ryan Dunleavy, a partner at Harcus Parker and one of the solicitors for the Student Group Claim, called on UCL to perform a “volte-face and agree to pay the students fair compensation”.

“This judgment could be of great benefit in speeding up resolution of this matter,” he added. “We have been chasing UCL in writing for more than a year to join us in appropriate settlement talks, which we do not think should be via UCL’s own internal complaints procedure. It is good that the court has prompted UCL to join us in alternative procedures.”

Kathleen Armour, UCL’s vice-provost (education and student experience), said the university “respects the right of our students to complain and seek redress if they feel that they have not received the support they expected from us”.

“We still believe our complaints procedure represents the most efficient, cost-effective and swiftest way for students to resolve their complaints. We are pleased that the High Court has ordered that proceedings be stayed to allow for the parties to attempt to resolve the students’ claims without the need for further litigation, and that the court has recognised the part our complaints procedure can play.”

SGC said it now had 120,000 students signed up and had sent “letters before action” to 17 universities, with cases being prepared against more than 100.

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