Lancaster is set to make history, this time as the first university to be named in a class action lawsuit over a breach of contract due to industrial action.
The Law Gazette reports that the consumer and human rights firm Leigh Day has notified our Vice-Chancellor of a claim for lost tuition time. The student who instructed the firm has set up a crowdfunding page to fund the case, and has, at the time of writing, raised £490 of its £10,000 target (this has been reduced from the original, more ambitious target of £30,000).
So, are we doomed? Is Lancaster going to be the first domino to fall, sparking off a national frenzy of universities shelling out hundreds of thousands of pounds to outraged consumers *ahem* students? Your correspondent consulted his 1987 A-Level law textbook (and a couple of highly qualified legal professionals) for some answers.
The case is almost certainly unprecedented – class action suits against universities are rare in the UK, with cases tending to be individuals suing for academic failure. In the case of a class action suit, it is nigh on impossible to determine how to recompense the students, since one student will have lost more or less contact time than the other, meaning everyone would be ‘entitled’ to a different amount in ‘compensation.’ On that basis, the case is highly unlikely to succeed, and plaintiffs would stand more of a chance if they sued individually for the amount of contact time that they themselves have lost.
This isn’t to say that a plaintiff would be likely to enjoy any luck whatsoever if they were to bring individual action against the university. Given that each subject, and therefore each student, is different, the university will no doubt have some sort of clause to obfuscate what is promised in terms of classes – as far as we’re aware, there isn’t a separate contract for every degree scheme. Furthermore, a firm would have to demonstrate how a few missed sessions in a three year degree programme is going to make a difference to how ‘educated’ the student is. It’s not as though you can measure how ‘educated’ somebody is at the end of the degree – you might hold up a Physics student with a 3rd class degree as an example of how the missed contact time has held the student back, but you only need one student in the same cohort with a 2:1 to blow that theory out of the water entirely.
In unprecedented cases such as this, courts are highly conscious of what they are unleashing on the public, and whether or not opening floodgates is in the public interest. Since granting credence to this sort of case would likely lead to the bankruptcy of every university in the UK and an appetite to curtail trade union rights, subtext’s legal experts were doubtful of the case standing any sort of chance.
It really wouldn’t be at all difficult for the university to defend itself in court over this. All students have had the opportunity to catch up on missed contact time – they have access to the reading lists that they are required to consume in order to understand key theories and concepts, their fees pay for an entitlement to utilise facilities in which to study and libraries and online archives replete with educational materials, as well as lecture slides and handouts. Since the university has provided plenty of ways for students to work around the industrial action, it could easily be argued that students are to blame for not taking the initiative.
We also have to consider whether or not students are entitled to any kind of financial recompense whatsoever.
Why would any student come out of this lawsuit with a few hundred quid in their pocket, when most have taken out a loan from the taxpayer?
Will universities write off a fraction of the debt that wasn’t going to be paid off in the first place?
Is the hardworking British taxpayer going to enjoy a little more on top of their rebate come the end of the tax year?
Is there a planet where this case isn’t a waste of time orchestrated by some students who think they’re going to get rich quick, and a law firm which when mentioned to our legal expert elicited the response ‘Leigh Day is a bunch of publicity seeking ambulance chasers in my opinion and a lot of lawyers regard them as a disgrace to the legal profession’? This is the same legal firm that recently suspended some of its employees for touting for business after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and earned significant scorn from the mainstream media and the general public for representing members of a Shia Militia in a murder compensation case against members of the British Armed Forces.
The subtext collective is confident that the case will come to nothing, and that those who have donated to the legal fund have done so wastefully. We wish the university well in dealing with this nonsense, and hope that it doesn’t prove to be too much of a distraction or financial burden.
After all, we’ve football universities to fund!