Aggrieved student wins right to challenge degree grade in full trial

“Claims for negligent educational provision can take various forms. The judge described them as “notoriously difficult to win”, but that has been held not to be a good reason for excluding the existence of duty of care.

The first category is a claim which asserts a breach of a duty owed in tort or contract arising in the exercise by the defendant’s professional teaching staff of academic judgment. An example would be a decision to award a particular grade to a student sitting an examination. Such a claim is not justiciable as a matter of law, and is therefore liable to be struck out (see e.g. Clark v. University of Lincolnshire and Humberside [2000] 1 WLR 1988
The second category is that of claims which allege the use of negligent teaching methods, in the devising of courses or the means of acquainting students with the educational content of the courses that are being taught. Such claims can be actionable in principle; see the appeals heard together in Phelps v. Hillingdon London Borough Council [2001] 2 AC 619, per Lord Slynn at 653F-654B. However, because the claimant’s attack is on the competence of the defendant’s performance in the exercise of skill and care in a profession, the merits of the claim must be assessed by reference to the Bolam test. This test is derived from the medical context and asks whether “the defendants, in acting in the way they did, were acting in accordance with a practice of competent respected professional opinion”; that is to say, “in accordance with a practice accepted as proper by a responsible body of … men skilled in that particular art.”
The third category of claim could be described as one founded on simple operational negligence in the making of educational provision. Again, hypothetical examples would include administrative error leading to a student sitting the wrong examination paper, containing questions about which the student had received no tuition; or where classes are cancelled due to non-availability of teaching staff; or a case where a teacher was habitually drunk or asleep during classes.
The Court’s Decision

Kerr J concluded that the merits of part of Mr Siddiqui’s claim had a real prospect of success and were properly for the trial judge to determine. It was not inappropriate, as the defendant argued, to rely on Ms Blackmore’s evidence even though she was not a witness in the case; her letter of complaint was admissible as evidence of the dissatisfaction of the author, whether or not it was admissible as evidence of the correctness of what she alleged. The University’s documentary response to the complaint was plainly admissible as evidence of negligence.

The pleaded case plainly includes the propositions that the University did not provide adequate teaching; that it was aware it lacked sufficient teaching staff to teach the course properly; and that it did not do enough, or indeed anything, to make good the deficiency

Some of the matters pursued in this claim might need expert evidence addressing the Bolam test. But that was not the gravamen of the claim; it focussed on the insufficiency of teaching capacity and the alleged failure to remedy that.

As such, the claim looks to me more like one of alleged mis-delivery or under-delivery of course teaching, rather than an attack on a conscious choice of teaching style.”

UK Human Rights Blog

mortarboard-svgSiddiqui v University of Oxford [2016] EWHC 3150 (5 December 2016) – read judgment

This case raises the interesting question of whether a disappointed graduate may call upon the courts to redress a grievance concerning the grade he was given for his degree; not just what his ground of claim should be, but whether this is the kind of grievance which should be navigated through the courts at all. There are some matters which are arguably non-justiciable matters of academic judgment.

The facts of the case may be summarised briefly. The claimant is a former history student at Brasenose College, Oxford. The defendants are, or the defendant is, collectively, the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford. The defendant is referred to throughout as the University.

The claimant sat his final examinations in June 2000 and obtained an Upper Second Class Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in history. His…

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