A person’s time at University is said to be the best years of their lives. For so many students this is true and attending higher education establishments is an enjoyable and life-changing time.
For others, however, complaints can be made against them to the University which result in formal investigations being undertaken and, in many cases, disciplinary proceedings follow. There is a common misconception that as the investigations are internal, and do not involve the police, that legal representation is not necessary. A person can respond to the investigation, and represent themselves at any subsequent hearing, with support from a member of staff, or the NUS. So why involve solicitors?
These proceedings are daunting, and many involve criminal accusations that can result in police involvement further down the line. They can also be life changing, with the University retaining the power to expel any student found to be guilty of serious misconduct. Disciplinary hearings involve evidence from live witnesses, who can be cross examined by the opposing party, and points of law that may be misunderstood, or missed, by the lay person.
At the outset of any such disciplinary proceedings, the subject of the complaint will be notified, in writing, of the nature of the allegations made against them and the procedure that is to follow. An impartial investigator will be allocated to the case and he or she should arrange a meeting with the individual in order for them to provide their account, should they wish to do so. They will also be advised of their right to have someone present in support, whether it be someone from the University, a friend or legal representative, or someone from their Union.
A person retains the right to refuse to engage in this stage of the investigation, but this is often to their detriment.
Complaints can range from the trivial to the criminal. An alleged breach of the University’s Code of Conduct may not amount to, if proven, a criminal offence. Many cases, however, do and it is therefore imperative to get legal advice from the outset to ensure that any accounts provided can be properly assessed.
In any event, the subject of any such proceedings is entitled to submit evidence in support of their version of events. This can include written evidence, such as e mails, or text messages, statements from witnesses who can corroborate their version of events, photographs, or social media posts. Even where a criminal offence has not been alleged, the fact that a person could lose their place at University, which would impact upon the work undertaken thus far, their education, and their career aspirations, makes it crucial for this stage to be conducted thoroughly. If sufficient evidence to disprove the allegation is submitted at this stage, often the matter will proceed no further.
Student Discipline Officer (SDO) Decision
At the conclusion of the investigation, all evidence obtained is submitted to the SDO for a decision to be made. They have the following options available to them:
a) To impose a minor sanction or measure where the Student Discipline Officer is satisfied that a breach of the Rules of Behaviour has occurred and that a minor sanction or measure is appropriate;
b) To refer the case to the Discipline Committee where the Student Discipline Officer considers that a breach of the Rules of Behaviour may have taken place and that a minor sanction or measure may not be an appropriate action;
c) Where neither a) nor b) is appropriate: (i) to take no further action; (ii) to refer the matter for decision under another University procedure.
The more serious allegations, and certainly those which contain an allegation of criminal behaviour, do tend to go to the Discipline Committee if there appears to be sufficient evidence to justify taking the matter further.
Prior to any hearing the student involved should receive copies of the evidence against them, including the initial statement of complaint, and they are given the chance to make written representations in support of their version of events.
The prospect of appearing before a Disciplinary Committee is a daunting one. It is conducted much like a court hearing, with live evidence being heard, and with the evidence of witnesses being tested by way of cross examination. Submissions can be made by either party at the conclusion of the evidence prior to any decision being made.
The majority of Discipline Committees apply the civil burden of proof to proceedings. This is a lesser standard than that used in criminal proceedings, and works on the basis of probabilities. Is it more likely than not that the conduct alleged happened? It is therefore crucial that all possible evidence in support of a students defence is properly presented, and that all evidence against them is properly tested.
If the case is decided against the student, they should still be afforded the opportunity to submit oral mitigation prior to any disposal being considered.
The University can impose a number of sanctions when a breach has been proven. They can also consider referring the student to the Fitness to Practice or Fitness to Study procedures where appropriate.
Whilst sanctions vary between establishments the following is a non-exhaustive list of possible disposals.
a) No further action
b) A written warning to be placed on the student’s record for the maximum duration of their studies or a shorter period as the University may decide
c) A behavioural contract or undertakings from the student relating to their behaviour
d) A fine or suspended fine
f) Compulsory attendance at an appropriate workshop
g) Restitution of damage
h) Restorative justice, including voluntary work for the University or community
i) A requirement to submit a written apology
j) Temporary or permanent exclusion from the use of specific University facilities or services or from the University itself
Sanctions must be proportionate and the University should normally impose the least serious appropriate penalty.
How can Olliers help?
At Olliers we appreciate how stressful any formal investigation or subsequent disciplinary proceedings can be. We take a pro-active approach in doing everything possible to disprove allegations of misconduct from the outset, priding ourselves on offering support and understanding to anyone who finds themselves in such a situation. We offer representation during all stages of the disciplinary proceedings and aim to get the best possible outcome.
Contact our specialist student misconduct proceedings team
If you face misconduct proceedings please contact Ruth Peters on 020 38836790 or 0161 8341515 or email firstname.lastname@example.org