London students’ Covid-19 compensation bid put on hold to encourage resolution

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A compensation bid by Covid-19 pandemic-hit students seeking to recover some of their tuition fees from a leading London university has been put on hold to see if settlements can be reached. Nearly 1,000 current and former students are bringing a claim against University College London (UCL), with thousands more wanting to join the legal action, alleging the university breached their tuition contracts. Lawyers for the students argue UCL broke “promises” over its services during strike and coronavirus-affected years between 2017 and 2022. Undergraduates and graduates, who can pay from £9,250 to £25,000 in fees per year, say they “have had enough” and are entitled to compensation over cancelled teaching days, tuition moved online and restricted access to facilities such as libraries and laboratories, a judge was told at a hearing at the High Court in London in May. In a ruling on Monday, Senior Master Barbara Fontaine said the case should be put on hold for eight months to allow time to see if some of the students can settle their damages claims against the university. She said the students’ bid to join together their claims for damages should be stayed for that period, and that she would encourage the students and the university “in the strongest possible terms” to engage in alternative dispute resolution. The judge said she would not mandate that the students must use the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) to attempt to resolve their claims, having heard from the claimants’ lawyers that it was “highly unlikely” either that or the university’s complaints procedure would lead to a “speedy, cost-effective resolution which is satisfactory to all parties”. Summarising the claimants’ case, she added: “These thousands of claims will almost certainly end up back before the court when the processes of the OIA scheme have been exhausted. “The consequences of requiring the claimants to pursue their complaints through these channels will be increased (irrecoverable) costs and delay to the claimants’ access to justice.” The judge said that the issue of whether their objections to that scheme, if they persisted, were “reasonable” would be a matter to be decided at a future hearing. The university argued at the May hearing that if a group litigation order is granted, it could lead to costly cases being brought against 17 other universities. The legal team behind the students’ High Court action claims more than 120,000 students have registered so far to be part of potential litigation against other institutions.

Professor Kathleen Armour, UCL’s vice-provost, education and student experience, said: “We know that the last few years has been a very difficult time for many students. “They have faced challenges and disruption from Covid and, in some cases, industrial action too. Supporting our students, their wellbeing and their educational achievements is always UCL’s priority. “Throughout the pandemic we prioritised the health and safety of our whole community and followed UK Government guidance, working tirelessly to make our campus and all UCL premises as safe as possible so that a high-quality academic experience could continue to be provided. “We respect the right of our students to complain and seek redress if they feel that they have not received the support they expected from us. “We still believe our complaints procedure represents the most efficient, cost-effective and swiftest way for students to resolve their complaints. “We are pleased that the High Court has ordered that proceedings be stayed to allow for the parties to attempt to resolve the students’ claims without the need for further litigation, and that the court has recognised the part our complaints procedure can play. “We remain confident that our complaints process is the best route for our students. “Should anyone be unsatisfied with our response to their complaint, they also have the further option of asking the OIA for Higher Education, the appointed independent body for student complaints, to review UCL’s decision.” Shimon Goldwater, solicitor at law firm Asserson who is working on the Student Group Claim, said in a statement: “This is an important ruling in which the judge recognised the key issues in this claim and their unsuitability to be determined by the OIA ombudsman, as UCL had proposed. “UCL must finally take responsibility for the disruption caused to its students during the lecturers’ strikes and the Covid-19 pandemic. “We are hopeful that UCL will now engage constructively in settlement discussions as students have been proposing for many months so that compensation payable to students can be agreed, rather than having to be decided in court.” Ryan Dunleavy, solicitor to Student Group Claim from law firm Harcus Parker, said: “The claimants and their legal team will be delighted if UCL now does a volte-face and agrees to pay the students fair compensation, following settlement negotiations through appropriate alternative dispute resolution. “This judgment could be of great benefit in speeding up resolution of this matter. “We have been chasing UCL in writing for more than a year to join us in appropriate settlement talks, which we do not think should be via UCL’s own internal complaints procedure. “It is good that the court has prompted UCL to join us in alternative procedures. “If the claims are not settled, they will proceed to trial. The students’ argument that they had a right to access the court system has been vindicated.”

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