UCL News


High Court orders pause in ‘Student Group Claim’

17 July 2023

The High Court has ordered an eight month pause of the Court proceedings brought by a group of current and former students in response to changes in teaching during the pandemic and industrial action to allow for alternative dispute resolution procedure (ADR) to be explored.

UCL's Wilkins Building & Portico

As part of this ‘Student Group Claim’, law firms acting for the students, Asserson Law Offices and Harcus Parker Limited, also applied to the King’s Bench Division of the High Court for a Group Litigation Order (GLO) to manage the claim going forward, which was heard on 24 May 2023. A GLO is a case management procedure where multiple claims sharing common issues can be dealt with as one single claim.

The Court has refused, at this time, to grant the Claimants the GLO they were seeking.

Both UCL and the law firms made submissions to the High Court on 24 May 2023 with UCL arguing that the proceedings should be stayed to allow for students to engage with its existing well-established complaints process with the ability to complain to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) if students were unsatisfied with UCL’s decision. Both services are free of charge for students.

The Court recognised that this ‘ready-made’ ADR process has the potential to resolve all, or a large proportion, of the students’ claims provided they are resourced and managed in a timely fashion.

The eight month stay of the Court proceedings and exploration of alternative ways to resolve the dispute could, in the High Court’s view, save substantial time and legal costs.

The High Court also agreed with UCL’s argument that the Claimants' lawyers needed to properly detail each of the student’s claims which UCL has requested from the outset and that this detail is required is any ADR is to be successful. The Court recognised the suitability of UCL’s complaints process in that students would need to provide this important detail as part of the procedure.

In making the ruling today (Monday 17 July), Senior Master Fontaine said of UCL’s internal complaints procedure and the OIA: “I encourage the parties in the strongest possible terms to engage in an appropriate form of ADR… If UCL/the OIA can provide satisfactory assurances…then there is a ready-made ADR process that will, if successful, limit costs substantially because legal representation may be unnecessary.”

Professor Kathleen Armour, UCL’s Vice-Provost (Education & 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 Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, the appointed independent body for student complaints, to review UCL’s decision.”


What did the judge decide?

The Court has granted UCL’s application for a stay of the proceedings for eight months to allow for the parties to engage in discussions over alternative dispute resolution (ADR) procedures to try and avoid costly litigation.

What happens next?

Both parties have been encouraged to discuss an appropriate form of ADR during the Court imposed stay of eight months.

UCL remains confident that its own internal complaints process with recourse to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) is the most appropriate ADR process in the circumstances, and the Court recognised the suitability of UCL’s complaints process.

The Court has made it clear that the Claimant’s lawyers will need to properly detail each of the students’ complaints if any ADR is to be successful.

Whilst UCL strongly believes that its complaints procedure, and the OIA, represent the most suitable form of ADR in this matter and encourages the students who are part of the group to take part, this is subject to agreement from the students’ lawyers. The High Court has already been clear that, if successful, this will have the benefit of saving legal costs and time.

Does this mean students can sue their universities?

This is not what the judge was asked to decide on. The Claimants applied for a Group Litigation Order, and their application was refused at this point. UCL, however, applied for a stay of the Court proceedings to allow for ADR to take place, which the Court granted.

The Court commented that it was unlikely to grant the GLO in the future unless and until the Claimants have provided further information to determine whether there are sufficient common or related issues to warrant the making of a GLO.

How long is the stay (pause) in proceedings?

The stay has been granted for eight months (as requested by UCL). Halfway through this period, at four months, either party can apply to lift the stay if insufficient progress is made with ADR.