WOODWORTH V UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL LANCASHIRE
We thought we would start the year with a bit of good news from the end of the last regarding claims against universities – courts remain willing to strike out certain types of case for having been brought too long after the events in question even though proceedings were started within the limitation period.
In the case of Woodworth v University of Central Lancashire, the claimant (a litigant in person) attended the university from 2003 to 2008, before alleging in late 2013 that the university had deliberately downgraded his exam results without any good reason, and had instigated an assault during a disciplinary hearing in 2007 in an attempt to secure his expulsion. Proceedings were issued in early 2014. The claimant asserted that the university’s conduct had caused him to attain only a lower second class degree in 2008, with a purportedly significant effect on his subsequent career (which he quantified at £650,000). He placed considerable weight on polygraph evidence he had obtained in support of his allegations.
The limitation period in a civil claim of this nature is generally six years, so the claimant ultimately (and unsurprisingly) conceded that he was not allowed to pursue any cause of action arising from events prior to 2008. On the other hand, litigants are normally regarded as having a legal right to commence proceedings at any time prior to the expiry of the limitation period. However, the balance of the claim was struck out on the basis that (1) any causes of action arising out of the university’s conduct in 2008 were an abuse of process due to the claimant’s failure to follow the internal procedures open to him at the time, to refer the matter to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and to bring a challenge by way of judicial review and (2) academic judgement is not justiciable in court in any event.
The case is significant as it is a (somewhat rare) example of causes of action which are ‘in time’ for limitation purposes being deemed an abuse of process for having been raised far too late, in accordance with the leading education case of Clark v University of Lincolnshire and Humberside. However, it is important that the claim was of a type which would normally have been expected to be brought by way of a judicial review in 2008; not all university claims have such a public law element.
The case is also interesting for the fact that (without ruling on its admissibility as evidence) the court held that the polygraph result did not prove that what the claimant said was true, it could only demonstrate that the claimant believed his own allegations. Even had it not been an abuse, the case against the university was considered sufficiently evidentially weak that it had no real prospect of success.
Please contact BLM partner Elliot Pound if you would like to discuss this matter further.