Legal allies in student David v Goliath battles

January 2, 2014

As a barrister, I occasionally represent clients who elicit little public sympathy. The “cab rank” rule requires barristers to accept a case even if they disapprove of the client or cause. Yet when I started helping university students with their academic appeals, I never anticipated that this would prove my most unpopular cause to date. After writing an article on the subject for Times Higher Education (“Students have a right to redress, so give them a fair hearing”, Opinion, 24 October 2013), a letter came in the post informing me that my honorary senior lectureship in medical ethics and law at King’s College London was being terminated.

In the letter, King’s expressed concerns about the perceived association between it and my firm, Alpha Academic Appeals, and claimed that references to my honorary appointment could be seen as the college condoning my activities. Upon reading the letter, one might have been forgiven for thinking that I had set up a brothel for students, with an endless supply of class A drugs.

The wisdom or otherwise of King’s’ decision is of no general interest, but the attitude it reflects – the apparent distaste for students seeking paid legal help to appeal against university decisions they consider to be unfair – should be. My own of course biased view is that if I were a student, I would rather be part of an institution that allowed me legal representation if I stood accused of cheating, for example. After all, what have universities to fear if all is in order? Lawyers should weed out the hopeless cases, not add to them. They should in practice assist, not obstruct, the decision-makers in making fair decisions.

King’s has a distinguished law faculty. Its staff will be familiar with the ancient rule that no man should be a judge of his own cause: nemo judex in causa sua. Universities that prohibit legal representation appear to reject this norm, preferring instead the guild mentality. While it is a common preference – policemen want to be judged by policemen, lawyers by lawyers and academics by academics – the refusal of many universities to allow students to be represented at hearings by external figures sits uneasily with the notion that justice must be done, and be seen to be done.

In its letter, King’s referred to lawyers targeting students, charging hefty fees for poor service. If this is true, complaints should be brought to the professional regulators, but every profession has its share of negligent practitioners. This is no reason to shun competent legal advice.

Of course, students can seek help from student advisers, but the service is quite different from that provided by legal professionals. In my experience, the advisers rarely assist with the drafting of the critical “appeal statement” and understandably may be reluctant, in the intimidating environment of a hearing, to stand up to the chair of the panel. Universities are hierarchical organisations, after all.

There is a good reason why students who believe they have been unfairly treated turn to lawyers. They know that, by and large, they will get better representation. To judge from what students have told me, the help provided in some institutions can be slow, non-existent, even misguided. As I wrote in October, I have encountered in appeal hearings poor practices that would not be tolerated in court or a tribunal. This needs to change, as on balance inadequate advice tends to result in a greater number of hopeless appeals lodged (with a corresponding waste of administrative time spent dealing with them) and creates an injustice for those students who cannot afford professional help. In my own practice, I have advised (at no charge) about 70 per cent of the students who have consulted me that their case had poor prospects of success.

Universities’ academic and disciplinary decisions may not lead to loss of liberty, but they can radically change students’ lives for the worse, affect entire families and shatter long-held dreams. They matter tremendously. In this David versus Goliath scenario, students need all the help they can get.

Daniel K. Sokol
12 King’s Bench Walk

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