April 20, 2024

‘It’s a power game’: students accused in university rape hearings call in lawyers | Rape and sexual assault

Parents of male students accused of rape at university are starting to bring in barristers to help them avoid expulsion, the Observer has learned.

As the number of serious sexual assaults escalates across universities, experts say female students often do not want to go to the police, fearing delays and traumatising questioning, and knowing only 1% of rape cases end in conviction. Universities say increasing numbers of women are instead turning to them to investigate, leaving institutions wrestling with complex cases, including a rising trend of pornography-inspired strangulation during sex.

A student conduct panel, often comprising academics, support staff and students, takes evidence from both sides and decides whether a student has broken the rules by committing sexual misconduct and should be suspended or expelled. Universities stress this is not like a court of law.

Prof Sir Steve West, the vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and president of Universities UK until earlier this year, said: “As expulsion is a penalty, parents of the accused often start to raise the stakes by hiring a lawyer. It is a power game, because usually the victim has no representation, and I think it is completely unacceptable and unfair.”

West said that parents “rarely tell us that they’re going to do this in advance”, typically turning up with a lawyer to the final student conduct committee hearing. He worries that this will “drive silence”, with victims frightened of being subjected to exactly the sort of adversarial investigation they wanted to avoid by not complaining to the police.

He added: “There is a huge inequality here, which is a big issue. Barristers are not cheap, and only certain families can afford them.”

A study soon to be published by researchers at Oxford University found that one in four female students at the university had experienced some sort of sexual assault in the preceding year.

Prof David Humphreys, one of its authors, said: “We think there are probably a lot more surveys on sexual assault at other universities, but they are squashed by the university because they are worried about the findings.” A spokesperson for Oxford said they were aware that, in line with the national picture, incidents of sexual violence and harassment were still “under-reported” by students. She said: “Anyone bringing forward complaints of this nature will always be listened to and supported.”

She added: “Oxford University has been working hard on building a culture where our students can feel safe, and where sexual violence and harassment will not be tolerated.”

Smita Jamdar, a partner at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau who advises universities on sexual assault hearings, said: “There are increasing numbers of students choosing to bring cases of sexual misconduct of all sorts to their university rather than the police, and increasing numbers of very serious allegations.” She added that choking and sadomasochism (S&M) were now “not uncommon”.

Jamdar said institutions often brought her firm in because an accused student had hired a lawyer and the university needed support. “Everyone ends up arguing over legal principles that are utterly bamboozling to most student conduct panels,” she said.

She is worried about the impact on victims of two recent high court cases where a UK university found a student guilty but the court overturned the finding, saying the process had not been fair.

She said: “The court has said that as these are serious allegations, very often it would be reasonable to allow legal representation, and you should subject the person who has made the complaint to rigorous and probing questions.” The complainant can appear by video link but must answer these questions, the judge said.

Jamdar said universities had worked hard to encourage reporting of attacks and that this had “really thrown a spanner in the works”.

“There is a lot of confusion about how this fits with a victim-centred approach,” she said. “Respondents’ lawyers can ask: ‘Why did you take months to report this? Why did you behave in this way afterwards?’ and that sort of question can be very upsetting.”

Rose Stephenson, director of policy at the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank, said: “If universities were being expected to investigate murder, everyone would accept that was completely ridiculous, but now they are regularly expected to investigate serious cases that equate to rape.”

She added: “Universities are expected to fill the gap created by a criminal justice system that is slow and rarely convicts rapists.” She said students chose to report to their university “because they want that person out of the university so they can get on with their lives”.

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