Whistleblowers: Postgraduate to take race case to the Lords

February 14, 2003

An Asian postgraduate excluded from Oxford University after failing a "flawed" exam in which he was treated less favourably than a white colleague is to take his allegations of racism to the House of Lords.

The Court of Appeal has upheld an April 2002 County Court ruling that Nadeem Ahmed was not racially discriminated against by his former supervisor Fritz Zimmermann or by Oxford, when he was removed from a masters degree course in medieval Arabic philosophy in 1999.

But this week Mr Ahmed told The THES that he was convinced there had been a miscarriage of justice and he would take his claims to the highest court in the land.

Although he rejected Mr Ahmed's complaints of racism, the original trial judge, Jonathan Playford, established that:

  • Mr Ahmed had been described by one supervisor as an "exceedingly able student"
  • An informal Arabic language exam that Mr Ahmed failed was "flawed", as it had no pass mark, was not second-marked and was not independent
  • Mr Ahmed did suffer discrimination when Dr Zimmermann decided that he had failed the flawed exam, while a white colleague who was "a complete beginner" in Arabic was passed. The judge said it was "incredible that (Mr Ahmed) should have failed, granted fairness and equality"
  • As a result of the discrimination, Mr Ahmed "clearly suffered a detriment, in that he (unlike his white colleague) was unable to proceed to the second year"
  • Dr Zimmermann was not a particularly "convincing witness", and "took a stand on grounds that could not be defended, namely that there was no less favourable treatment".

Despite these points in Mr Ahmed's favour, Judge Playford said:

"My consideration of all the evidence leads me to the clear and affirmative view that Dr Zimmermann was not in any way motivated by race".

The appeal court found that Judge Playford's judgment was "well reasoned and compelling" and dismissed Mr Ahmed's appeal, in a judgment last month.

The appeal rested almost entirely on Mr Ahmed's concern that Judge Playford had failed to make proper use of the expertise of his two "assessors" - official experts appointed to advise and assist judges in such cases.

Judge Playford had said in his judgment that the assessors "should not be involved in primary findings of fact nor in the inferences to be drawn nor in the law to be applied".

But the appeal court concluded that this view was "unsound" and the judge had wrongly limited the experts' role.

Moreover, the appeal court said that "the judge was led astray by submissions made by (Oxford University's barrister) Mr Bowers as to the manner in which his assessors would be used".

But despite this, the appeal judges concluded that "no miscarriage of justice has taken place", and refused to order a re-trial.

The university told The THES that its barrister, with the agreement of Mr Ahmed's, had used existing case law to determine the role of the assessors, and the appeal court agreed that this was the "received wisdom". However, the appeal court clarified a point of law on how assessors should specifically be used in race cases.

"The Court of Appeal went on to consider how, if at all, this impacted upon Mr Ahmed's case," an Oxford spokeswoman said. "There was every reason to believe that the trial judge had used the assessors in precisely the way they should have been used during the course of the trial and it was clear that there had been no miscarriage of justice.

"The university had been correctly cleared of the charge of racial discrimination and the appeal was dismissed."

She said the appeal court had already denied Mr Ahmed leave to appeal to the Lords.

Mr Ahmed said: "I was discriminated against and was made to suffer a detriment by being prevented, unfairly, from entering my second year, based on flawed exams.

"If you limit the role of experts in a case of racial discrimination, you automatically limit the chances of a fair hearing. I have little choice but to petition the House of Lords," Mr Ahmed said.

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