Visitor is unwelcome in law

September 3, 1999

The ancient visitor method of settling disputes between universities and students is in breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, an academic lawyer has warned.

Tim Birtwistle of Leeds Metropolitan's School of Law said changes to the law coming into force next year would sound the death knell for the visitor system. "Universities need to act now," Mr Birtwistle said. "The law will not accept the status quo no matter how much of a rearguard action is mounted. The courts will surely find that a system that is ponderous, cloaked in at least obscurity if not secrecy and that ousts the jurisdiction of the courts is contrary to Article 6."

Most old universities have a nominated visitor, supposed to be an objective person, often nominated by the crown, whose role is to "correct all abuses". A visitor's decisions cannot be subject to review by the High Court and this is the sticking point. Article 6 states complainants must have a fair hearing within reasonable time limits, that "tribunals" must be independent and there should be right of access to a court.

Mr Birtwistle described the idea of the visitor as "Nirvana". He said universities could either do nothing and face being subject to challenge in the courts or act now to replace the visitor with a fair appeals process. The only question was whether such a move should be made collectively.

Part of the difficulty is that new universities do not employ visitors and their students can have direct access to the courts to settle disputes. "It is not fair that students at different universities are treated in totally different ways, with totally different rights, even though their appeal might be based on exactly the same grounds," Mr Birtwistle said. "Appeals processes must change." The process of appeal had become more important given the financial drain suffered by students and the premium employers placed on initial qualifications to access the jobs market, Mr Birtwistle added. "Actions for breach of contract are already surfacing and universities need to ensure complaints mechanisms are fair, speedy, transparent and open to challenge in the courts."

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