24-year-old’s solicitor talks to Legal Cheek about the rationale behind the claim
An aspiring lawyer is suing one of the world’s most elite universities over claims it forced her to drop out for a year.
Oxford graduate Catherine Dance, 24, has issued proceedings in the county court against both Jesus College and the University of Oxford, alleging they failed to make special arrangements for her exams.
Dance suffers with chronic anxiety and depression, which impacted her throughout her Oxford experience. Legal documents detail the effect this had on her exams and applications for graduate jobs.
To help combat her symptoms, Dance requested she take her exams in a private room with a laptop. She claims she had been able to do this at school, and made such known on her UCAS application.
But Oxford wouldn’t allow it, and she suspended her studies in April 2015. She returned in April 2016, and only in January 2017 (a year and nine months after her suspension) were Dance’s requested adjustments finally approved. Her claim forms — seen by Legal Cheek — state both Oxford and Jesus College are “jointly liable” for Equality Act breaches.
The Oxford grad will be represented by Chris Fry, Equality Act specialist and managing partner of Sheffield-based Fry Law, which was founded earlier this year. Fry was previously managing partner of Unity Law, currently listed on Companies House as ‘In Administration’. He told us:
The denial of reasonable adjustments impacts your degree and certainly impacts your job prospects and training contract chances. Students denied reasonable adjustments are unable to go on to qualify with the full range of opportunities available to them had the adjustments been made.
Dance has now sued for psychological harm, the year’s loss of earnings and £2,174 in additional student finance costs. This sum will be quantified with the help of expert evidence, but legal documents state she expects to recover no more than £22,000.
Denying the claims, Jesus College said it did make “appropriate adjustments” for Dance. A spokesperson told Legal Cheek:
Jesus College denies all allegations of discrimination. It takes its responsibilities towards students with a disclosed disability or health condition very seriously. The college repeatedly encouraged Miss Dance to seek counselling in accordance with the university’s recommended procedures. It made a successful application to the university for Miss Dance to sit her final exams with the ‘adjustments’ she had requested for her condition and she was able to complete her degree successfully.
Dance’s case is far from unique. Fry told us he has plenty of enquiries from students considering suing their university for discrimination.
A big worry for practitioners like Fry is the short six-month limitation period imposed by the Equality Act. He is concerned by the number of students approaching law firms out of time and, interestingly, he blames this on the higher education providers. He said:
Six months is a rubbish limitation period, but universities know what the position is, and are aware of this when dealing with student complaints internally. It’s tactical.
Fry, who completed a financial and legal studies degree at Sheffield Hallam University in 1998 and then became a partner at Wake Smith & Tofields in 2003, adds that students should be properly informed of the funding models available for legally enforcing their rights (Fry is representing Dance on a no-win no-fee basis) and, of course, what their rights are themselves. This lies with the university, argues Fry.
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