Students should not be dissuaded from exercising their right to seek legal advice for student appeals, says Christopher Coyle.
Many universities have enshrined within their Governance Regulations that students cannot have representation by a lawyer for an appeal hearing, although they can have family, friends or other forms of representative as long as they are not legally qualified.
Others have taken a further step by explicitly discouraging students seeking any form of legal advice as part of their academic appeal or complaints process. Only last week, a PhD student accused of plagiarism told a colleague of mine that her Department warned her against consulting a lawyer. This is neither fair nor acceptable.
Most students who approach my colleagues and I for assistance in the academic field have found themselves in difficulty through no fault of their own, be it personal circumstances or health problems. In many cases, there has also been some failure on the part of the university through an inability to properly apply its own Regulations, their compliance with their statutory duties, or the rules of natural justice.
At first blush, it would be easy to ask why any student would need legal advice for academic appeals or complaints. However, to do so would be to presuppose a number of points: firstly, that these academic procedures are not important enough to warrant the involvement of lawyers; secondly, that any student embroiled in such procedures has probably found themselves in that situation through their own sloth or idiocy; and finally, that universities will follow the strict and fair letter of the law (be it their own or the law of the land). Yet, such presumptions are not always justified, as illustrated by the legal organisations whose sole purpose is to help students in need of objective advice.
Even plagiarism cases are not the simple ‘black and white’ matters you might expect. There are degrees of severity. At the more serious end is contract cheating, where essays or other forms of written work are purchased by the student to pass off as their own work. At the milder end is poor scholarship, where a student might use a phrase from a source and fail to utilise quotation marks, or quotes part of their own prior work without appropriate referencing to accompany it (‘self-plagiarism’).
For the latter examples, we may view them as mistakes easily made, particularly if the University has failed to properly inform students of these requirements, or has failed to conduct its investigations in a manner that takes account of the particular sensitivities of each student.
Issues can arise after students have already invested years and thousands of pounds into their education. It is vital, therefore, that universities should not actively discourage students seeking legal advice. This is advice to which students are entitled; advice which can play a huge difference in these academic processes and, ultimately, the future of a student’s career path.
Whatever one’s view of the legal profession, access to justice is as important in academic situations as it is in other aspects of life. It is concerning that institutions who have roundly failed to show an ability to effect justice are actively discouraging students from safeguarding their positions.
It is doubtful that this practice is consistent with procedural fairness, particularly in light of the imbalance of power in these situations, and the inexperience and disadvantage of the students.
Universities should have more confidence in their procedures, for if they are truly just there is nothing to fear from students seeking legal assistance. Until universities can themselves mete out justice flawlessly, the potentially life-changing consequences for students when academic procedures go awry necessitates access to full and impartial legal advice.
Christopher Coyle is a Barrister, a former University Director, and a Senior Adviser at Alpha Academic Appeals.
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