Beyond a prima facie case

It’s interesting that one of the emerging issues that the OIA has picked up in its Annual Report relates to the use (or abuse) of the concept of a prima facie case in student appeals. There is every reason to suspect that academic appeals and complaints are likely to increase and so the correctness of the decision-making at this early stage will continue to come under scrutiny.
As the OIA point out, a prima facie case is one where the allegations are such that further investigation is warranted. It is not necessary or appropriate to reach a view on whether the allegations stand a good chance of success or whether there is evidence that disproves the allegations. A process which seeks to identify and dismiss unmeritorious appeals and complaints without a full investigation may be permissible, but is not the same as a stage which weeds out those appeals where there is no prima facie case.
I’ve come across many situations where the parameters of what prima facie means have been extended beyond any acceptable interpretation of the phrase:
·         Academic appeals processes where the relevant board of examiners is asked for comment before deciding whether to allow the appeal to proceed to a full hearing;
·         Appeals against disciplinary proceedings where a view is taken on whether the appeal is likely to succeed;
·         Extenuating circumstances claims where the question of whether or not the circumstances in fact occurred as described, or whether they had a sufficiently adverse impact, is taken into account at the stage at which the proper question should be whether or not the circumstances described are capable of constituting extenuation.
The OIA’s Annual Report makes it clear that in these circumstances it is likely to recommend that the institution should reconsider the appeal or complaint, so it is worth getting this right. Those who are asked to decide whether or not there is a prima facie case need to ensure that they go no further than doing just that.
Institutions may want to consider a separate “summary” process for dismissing those appeals and complaints that have no reasonable prospect of success, or alternatively fast-tracking those that have a very high likelihood of success by referral back to the school or department for reconsideration.

Smita Jamdar
Partner and Head of Education
For and on behalf of SGH Martineau LLP
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E: smita.jamdar@sghmartineau.com
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