Why allegations of sexual misconduct at university deserve to be taken seriously
2 Oct 2023
In a blog, Serious and General Crime partner Peter Csemiczky analyses a national newspaper’s recent account of how universities are dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct on campus.
As increasing numbers of university students are accused of sexual misconduct, the Observer newspaper has published a news story about the way in which universities are trying to deal with the phenomenon.
The article – which has the headline “It’s a power game’: students accused in university rape hearings call in lawyers” – makes some bold claims which bear close examination.
The story focusses on the role of university student conduct panels, which it describes as “tak[ing] evidence from both sides and decid[ing] whether a student has broken the rules by committing sexual misconduct and should be suspended or expelled.”
As a solicitor who acts for students facing disciplinary investigations and proceedings, I agree that universities are, via these panels, increasingly likely to investigate (and attempt to determine the truth and reach some conclusion about) allegations of sexual misconduct committed in an educational setting.
But I am far less comfortable with the next element of the Observer’s story. This is the claim, made on behalf of universities, that their panels are “not like a court of law.”
This unchallenged claim functions as the logical premise for the whole article. It is what explains Prof Sir Steve West’s quoted views that: “As expulsion is a penalty, parents of the accused often start to raise the stakes by hiring a lawyer. It is a power game, because usually the victim has no representation, and I think it is completely unacceptable and unfair.”
To my mind, Sir Steve’s (and the newspaper’s) message is clear: any accused student who engages a lawyer is somehow betraying the universities’ good intentions.
I think this is unfair, misleading, and reveals a profound misunderstanding of what the university’s proper role in these matters actually is.
While it is true to say that a student conduct panel is not a court of law; it is also true to say that it is not so very different from one.
Student conduct panels are quasi-judicial, both in form and nature. Their proceedings are codified and complex. Their decisions can have serious consequences.
Not only can panel decisions kickstart police investigations, but testimony and evidence provided to these hearings could form part of future criminal prosecutions.
This would be fine if students were aware of all the implications of engaging. But often they are not.
As the Observer’s article shows, universities can present their proceedings as somehow benign and inconsequential. They often discourage accused students from seeking legal advice.
The pre-eminent barrister Eleanor Laws KC (whom, full disclosure, I have instructed in criminal cases) recently spoke on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour about the problems student panel have in determining facts and reaching fair decisions. I shan’t repeat her excellent points here.
I worry that by not giving a fully accurate picture of the way these panels operate, and downplaying their significance and impact, the Observer risks luring accused students into a false sense of security.
Student misconduct hearings are formal tribunals of fact with serious potential consequences for participants. Any accused individual who seeks specialist legal advice in relation to them is not playing a “power game”. They are treating the situation with the seriousness it deserves.