Unappealing justice: the flawed and arcane Court of Discipline

Cambridge student Angus MacDonald reminds us of how inappropriate the decision to try Owen was, given the dubiousness of the University’s disciplinary procedures. Owen’s appeal is likely to be heard later this month. Republished from Varsity (www.varsity.co.uk/comment/4767)

Student discipline is, for the most part, dealt with inside the colleges. Party til midnight, get busted by the grouchy night porter, an email from the Lay Dean, and you end up with a £30 fine. A headache and a thirty quid tumor on your college bill – poor you. But, surprisingly the University has an array of apparatus for dealing with discipline outside of the colleges. This includes four individual courts, real-life judges, plenty of gowns, and a latin lexicon to boot. These disciplinary mechanisms rarely grind into gear, and when they do, it’s usually to dole out punishment for cheating or plagiarism. A student going in front of the court for taking part in a protest, such as Owen Holland, is extremely unusual. Owen’s punishment, regardless of its absurdity, was a product of a University Court that has barely any experience in dealing with anything other than slapping students on the wrist for sneaking a calculator into their exam or copying and pasting Wikipedia.

The University has four separate courts: The Court of Appeal, a University Tribunal to deal with staff, and two courts for delinquent students: the Summary Court and The Court of Discipline. The Appeal Court is a council of seven called the Septemviri. It’s made up of big dogs from various colleges, and a fair few Lords and Dames. The Septemviri hear appeals on disciplinary measures taken by the more senior University Courts, and it’s to them that Owen has appealed his sentence.

There’s the Summary Court and the University Tribunal. The Tribunal is a body of discipline exclusively for academic staff. Due to the immaculate behavior of Cambridge’s upper echelons, it rarely meets at all. The Summary Court deals with smaller disciplinary issues outside of a college’s jurisdiction. So maybe you did what we all dream of and sneaked into the UL’s nether regions, and, finding your way to the top of the tower, ran some gloriously witty message up the flagpole. This could be a case for the Summary Courts. They only have the power to fine, or to ban from University facilities. I reckon they’d slap a fine on you and ban you from the UL for a term or two (almost worth it…). Their disciplinary power is limited, so in finding people guilty they only need to prove you ‘probably’ did what you’re accused of.

Now if you’re a student in front of the Court of Discipline, things are serious. They have at their disposal the power to rusticate (suspend), deprive a student of their University membership, or send down completely (expulsion). The potential severity of their rulings means they try to act like a real criminal court. A genuine judge currently chairs the Court, and the guilt of any defendant must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. While the Court claims to emulate the adversarial set-up of genuine criminal courts, this idealistic aspiration has no basis in the court’s actual conduct

The Court of Discipline’s ability to carry out any semblance of a fair trial is unconvincing. First, there’s a woefully inadequate separation of powers: the panel of five University officials are both judge and jury. Worse than that, they can – and have been known to – enter into the adversarial process on the side of the prosecution. This makes them prosecutor, judge, and jury all in one. What’s more, the court deals almost exclusively with plagiarism and cheating in exams. It meets rarely and when it does, the defendant, having been caught red handed, is brought in, pleads guilty, and the Court gives them an uncontroversial punishment. No big deal. No one cares. There’s no need for lofty principles like justice, reasonable doubt, and even-handedness. For example, in the academic year 2010-11, the Court didn’t meet once. This year, they’ve met three times (excluding Owen’s case.) That was for one case of cheating, and two cases of plagiarism. On one occasion a student was caught in an exam about to cheat. The court gave him zero for that exam – no big deal. Another was found to have plagiarised some written work in an exam. He was put in front of the Court and made to do the exam again – pretty lenient. The final case was a plagiarising MPhil student. They were suspended until a University psychiatrist determined them fit to return to their studies – a bit weird, but alright. Each time, the student’s guilt is a given, the Court just picks a punishment.

Owen Holland took his defence into an environment that had no experience of listening to and weighing up a defence. He was charged with orchestrating the Willetts protest, for being so integral that it wouldn’t have happened without him. Any participant of the protest could testify that this is transparently untrue. Yet Owen was advised ‘not to irritate’ the Court, that by playing ball he’d get off with a fine. Thus the Court’s quasi-judicial aspirations don’t even extend to the first priority of English Courts of Law, where the ‘overriding objective’ of a court’s rules is to ensure ‘cases be dealt with justly’. Instead, Owen was tried for six hours in a closed In Camera trial, the records of which the University has yet to release. He was tried in a court that strongly presumed guilt and whose mechanisms for dealing with an adversarial case were rusty. A court that had little experience of, commitment to, or safeguards for genuine justice was faced with a case that required exactly these balances. Unsurprisingly, the Court produced a flawed verdict to match the flawed implementation of its quasi-judicial mechanisms.

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