UCL students’ Covid lawsuit set to drag on into 2026

Far-off trial date leaves uncertainty hanging over claimants and universities as new legal ruling issued

July 10, 2024
Source: iStock

Students’ legal action against UCL over its teaching during the Covid pandemic and university strikes – which could have significant implications for the whole of the UK sector – is unlikely to be resolved until 2026, it has emerged.

A High Court judge set a four-week trial date for between January and April that year, in a ruling handed down on 10 July. A series of test cases will be heard out of the claims of about 5,000 current and former UCL students who allege that the institution breached its contract with its students between 2018 and 2022 when classes were cancelled or moved online and access to facilities was restricted.

Student Group Claim, the organisation coordinating the legal action, said that roughly 155,000 students have now instructed law firms to seek compensation from more than 100 UK universities. It said that solicitors were in correspondence with more than 50 institutions.

“With trial now fixed for 18 months’ time, UCL should focus on making a reasonable settlement proposal to the claimants rather than continuing to fight this claim through to the end,” said Matthew Patching, a partner at Harcus Parker and solicitor to Student Group Claim.

“UCL moved almost all teaching online during Covid but refused to reduce students’ fees. Today’s important decision brings UCL students and our clients at more than 100 other universities one step closer to receiving fair compensation.”

UCL has argued that it was not contractually obliged to provide in-person tuition and that it maintained high academic standards during both the pandemic and industrial action.

The university had previously argued for an indefinite stay in proceedings until students’ complaints had been considered by the English sector ombudsman, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

But this was rejected by the High Court in July 2023, with a judge agreeing with the complaints that the OIA might struggle to deal with such a large volume of grievances.

Subsequent to that, eight months of talks aimed at finding an out-of-court resolution ended without resolution.

There was good news for UCL in the latest legal judgment, with Judge Cook rejecting the claimants’ request to manage the thousands of cases under a group litigation order (GLO), which allows multiple claims to be dealt with as a single one.

UCL argued that this would add greater time and cost to the litigation.

Kathy Armour, UCL’s vice-provost for education and student experience, welcomed the refusal of the GLO application.

“We know the last few years have been a very difficult time for many students. They have faced challenges and disruption from Covid-19 and, in some cases, industrial action. Supporting our students, their well-being and their educational achievements is always UCL’s priority,” Professor Armour added.

“Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we prioritised the health and safety of our whole community and followed UK government guidance, working tirelessly to make our campus and all UCL premises as safe as possible so that a high-quality academic experience could continue to be provided.”


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