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In-house or in court? Legal challenges to university decisions

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Every day, decisions are made in universities that affect students. When a decision adversely affects a particular student, what means of redress does that student have? The circumstances in which a student has a legal claim against their university are generally unclear. Courts have traditionally tended to draw a distinction between ‘purely academic' decisions and disciplinary decisions. There has been reluctance on the part of courts to intervene in non-disciplinary decisions which involve academic judgment, for example, the grade to be given to a student's work. On the other hand, where the decisions are purely disciplinary, for example, in relation to a student's behaviour towards others or towards university property, the courts have made it clear that there is essentially no difference between this and disciplinary matters within any other public institution or organization. However, disciplinary decisions that are connected with allegations of academic misconduct, for example, cheating and/or plagiarism, have been more problematic for the courts. Historically, the debate was whether any such decision was justiciable in public law. Recently the question has also been whether an aggrieved student may succeed in a private law action against a university. The legal issues raised by university decisions affecting students have not yet been clearly resolved in all jurisdictions. Indeed, in some cases, judges have raised many more questions than they have answered. This article will review the framework for legal challenges to university decisions against a background of recent judicial attitudes in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: University of Sydney, Australia 2: Education law researcher and consultant, Wellington, New Zealand

Publication date: 2006-03-01

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