The Court of Appeal’s task in the case of a social work student at Sheffield University was an almost impossible one. In September 2015 Mr Ngole made comments disapproving of homosexual acts on social media. The University removed him from the course on fitness to practice grounds. He sought judicial review before a Deputy High Court Judge whose decision made it to the Court of Appeal.
The Court’s comment that “this is a not a straightforward case” is something of an understatement and it is difficult to express any opinion on it without offending someone. The judgement is a finely balanced one. Even now, three and a half years after the initial comments were made, the case hasn’t been resolved as the Court of Appeal referred a final decision back to a fitness to practice committee.
What is noticeable, however, is the criticism that the court made of the University. They said that “the University adopted a position from the outset of the disciplinary proceedings which was untenable”, referred to the confusion in their thinking and their failure to properly explain their concerns to the student.
I was particularly struck by the reference to the University’s position becoming “entrenched”. Individuals becoming entrenched in untenable positions is a common feature of long-running complaints. At Verita we act as independent reviewers of complaints for a number of bodies such as the British Council, Sport England and the Arts Council. Fortunately we are usually able to head issues off before they turn into legal disputes of the sort that happened in this case.
In addition to the financial cost of the case to the University, the reputational damage has been immense. Rather than demonstrate their commitment to gay rights, the University has advertised itself as an organisation with muddled thinking and an inability to express itself clearly. Not a great look. How difficult would it have been for them to get some robust independent advice to help them think this through before it got to this stage?
For more information on our complaints service call 020 7494 5670 or email [email protected]