Recently on the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) website I discovered that under one of the frequently asked questions the OIA actively advises students not to seek legal representation when submitting a complaint to the OIA.
As a higher education law solicitor who has dealt with submitting complaints to the OIA on a number of occasions I do find it concerning that the OIA would offer this advice to students. The process of submitting a complaint and responding to the university’s response to a complaint can be complex and it is unfair to expect students to navigate themselves through this process.
Presenting a complaint to the OIA, highlighting the salient points in a coherent manner, is not an easy task. It is not to say that students are unable to do this on their own, however, what is the harm of them seeking assistance from a legal expert who deals with these matters on a day to day basis and can help them submit an articulate complaint to the OIA?
When the OIA receives a complaint from a student the complaint is sent to the university for a response. It is very probable that the university’s response is going to be have been reviewed, or even drafted, by the university legal team. The OIA, on their website, suggest that if a student instructs solicitors to represent them in this matter the process can often become too legal. Firstly, the university have access to a legal team to assist them in responding to any complaints. Secondly, submitting a clear and eloquent complaint, highlighting procedural irregularities or unfair treatment by the university, is not making the process more legal, it is merely giving the student an opportunity to present their case clearly and providing a legal balance in the process.
In 2012 only 4% of complaints submitted by students to the OIA were considered to be justified, that to me highlights an issue. Is it that the vast majority of students complaining to the OIA have meritless complaints? Or is it a relevant factor that a number of students fail to highlight the relevant points in a well-expressed manner, thus allowing the OIA to find their complaint unjustified?
If the OIA is really about evaluating complaints fairly, then they need not be concerned about whether students seek legal assistance. Their current advice to students is doing students a disservice. You only need to look at the number of unjustified complaints to think that maybe something is going amiss.