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Students sue university for missed tuition
Judge will be asked to make contested group order next week
Lawyers for nearly a thousand university students who claim they were not given the tuition they had paid for will ask a High Court judge to make a group litigation order at a hearing next Thursday. The application will be contested.
Current and former students at University College London are seeking compensation from the university for breach of contract. They say that the university, better known as UCL, failed to meet its teaching obligations because of strikes by staff and the Covid pandemic.
In a statement to be released today, the claimants’ lawyers accuse the university of trying to delay the proceedings by insisting that individual students must first exhaust UCL’s internal complaints procedures and then, if necessary, complain to a company called The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, which is designated under the Higher Education Act 2004 and can recommend compensation awards. That could take 18 months or more, the lawyers say.
UCL is expected to argue at next week’s hearing that a group litigation order would be premature and that there are better ways for the court to manage the claims.
More than 900 current and former students issued proceedings against UCL in the High Court earlier this month. They complain that they were denied in-person, campus-based tuition and access to university facilities at various times over the past four years.
The lawyers say that, in all, more than 4,000 current or former students at UCL have said they would be willing to join a group claim. Seventeen other universities1 have been sent so-called letters before action. Others are likely to be added. The total number of students who have registered with the claims website is now more than 73,000.
The claimants’ lawyers estimate that students from the UK who were at university during the pandemic would each receive around £5,000 if their claims were successful. Foreign students who paid higher charges would receive more. Up to 35% of any damages received would be paid in fees to the lawyers and their litigation funders. The two law firms say that insurers will pay any legal costs ordered against the claimants if their claims are dismissed.
Group litigation order
A group litigation order allows for the management of claims that give rise to common or related issues of fact or law. The court may direct that one of the claims is to be treated as a test case. If a judgment is given or an order made in relation to one or more of the specified group litigation issues, it is normally binding on all other claimants whose names are on the group register at that time.
According to a document filed at court by the claimants’ lawyers, UCL’s lawyers had argued against a group litigation order because:
it would be wrong for students to sidestep existing complaints procedures; and
if liability is established, the process of quantifying damages would be fact-sensitive.
In response, the students’ lawyers argued that:
the UCL complaints procedures were non-mandatory, non-binding and non-judicial; and
the case was likely to raise subtle and complex legal issues that were best decided by the Commercial Court.
In their statement today, the two law firms acting for the students say that that requiring students to go through non-judicial complaint procedures before starting their claims would be inconsistent with UCL’s standard contract terms. The students’ lawyers also argue that denying the claimants access to the courts would breach the students’ right to a fair hearing under article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights
UCL has made it clear that it does not dispute the rights of individuals to bring claims against it in court. A UCL spokesperson said:
We have a well-established complaints procedure, which gives students the option of complaining to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education if they are not satisfied with our response. This is the appointed independent body for dealing with student complaints with powers to recommend that UCL make awards of compensation to affected students where appropriate, and this is free to use.
We believe this process represents the best, most efficient and swiftest way for our students to resolve any complaints.
In proposing this, we are not suggesting that students should not be able to seek access to the courts, but given that they have not yet used appropriate and available ways to resolve their complaints through our established processes, the group litigation order is unnecessary and premature.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, UCL prioritised the health and safety of our whole community and followed UK government guidance. Our lecturers and support staff worked tirelessly to make our campus and all UCL premises as safe as possible and ensured that a high-quality academic experience was provided to students.
We are also committed to minimising the impact of industrial action, to ensure students are not academically disadvantaged and are able to complete their studies and graduate on time.
The contested application for a group litigation order is due to be heard in the Commercial Court on 2 February by Mr Justice Foxton.
Update 1 February: the hearing will not be taking place tomorrow after all. I understand that Mr Justice Foxton decided yesterday, on his own initiative, to transfer the claim out of the Commercial Court and into the general King’s Bench list.
A new date for the hearing will be fixed shortly, perhaps for later this month.
The UCL statement quoted above has been updated since it was first published here. Three points have been added:
Students do not have to pay a fee if they complain to the adjudicator
This would be the swiftest way of resolving complaints
UCL is not suggesting that students should be denied access to the courts
Update 15 February: the case has now been listed to be heard by Senior Master Fontaine on 24 March.
Update 24 May: the case was heard today.
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