“I’m going to tell my mum on you”: the parent as advocate in complaints & appeals

One of the many changes I’ve noticed in advising universities and colleges over the last few years (and, gosh, there have been many) is the rise of the parent-advocate. These are parents who seek to prosecute complaints and appeals against the institution on behalf of their (adult) children. As with the involvement of other third parties (e.g. lawyers), the effect of their involvement on both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the relevant internal process is mixed at best. In extreme cases, it can be difficult to ascertain whether the concerns expressed are those of the student, with whom the legal relationship and the entitlement to use the institution’s internal processes rests, or the parents, to whom neither of these apply.

The question therefore arises whether institutions are required as a matter of law to allow parents to conduct these processes on behalf of an adult student. Note that I’m framing the question very specifically and deliberately: I can imagine a whole host of non-legal reasons why institutions may feel under pressure to allow a parent to be involved, not least the financial and other contributions that parents make to support students at further and higher education level. These are matters for each institution to decide. However, I think it is important for institutions to understand the legal position so that their decisions are not influenced by an erroneous understanding of either the parent’s or the student’s legal rights in this area.

Let’s start with a definition. By adult, I mean a student who’s over 18. Arguably what I am about to say would apply equally to a student who is, say 16 or 17, but I know that many FE colleges expressly choose to involve parents in cases where the learner is under-18, so let’s not dwell on that group any further.

In cases where an adult student wishes to complain or appeal against a decision of the institution, there is no legal obligation to allow that student’s parent(s) to prosecute and advocate that process on the student’s behalf. The only exception to this is if allowing a parent to pursue the matter is a reasonable adjustment for a student with a disability. I return to this below.

Sometimes, the institution feels compelled to allow a parent to prosecute the matter simply because a student signs a consent form confirming they are happy for the parent to do so. Such consent will mean that the sharing of the student’s personal information with the parent will not be in breach of the Data Protection Act or the right to privacy, but it does not oblige the institution to accede to the request. It is perfectly proper to insist that if the student wishes to complain or appeal, he or she must do so in person and not via an agent. Of course there is nothing to stop parents drafting correspondence on behalf of and otherwise helping their child behind the scenes, but the lines of communication should remain directly with the student.

As already stated, these propositions might not always be correct in the case of students with disabilities. The test then is whether the institution’s policy of requiring students to prosecute their own complaints and appeals puts a student with a disability at a substantial disadvantage when compared with those who do not have that disability. If it does, then the institution is obliged to make such adjustments as are reasonable to eliminate or reduce that disadvantage. Generally this will mean acceding to the request that the student is represented by his or her parent. In appropriate cases, other options might include a member of staff or the student’s union supporting the student in this way. However, in all cases, there will be a need to depart from the established policy only if there is a link between the student’s disability and his or her ability to advance the complaint or appeal effectively. So, for example, it is unlikely to be a required reasonable adjustment where a student has a physical impairment that affects his or her mobility.

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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