High Court decision paves the way for mass student lawsuits against British universities over Covid and strike disruption


On Monday 17 July, in the case of Hamon and another v University College London, the High Court gave permission for nearly 5,000 current and former University College London (UCL) students to sue the university for compensation over learning lost due to Covid and strikes.

These students, who can pay between £9,250 and £40,000 a year, allege that UCL breached their tuition contracts after teaching went online and access to facilities was extremely limited due to strikes and Covid restrictions.

UCL's Argument

UCL had tried to argue that the High Court should stay proceedings on the grounds that students should be forced to first complete the university's own internal complaints procedure and, failing that, to go through the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA). UCL stated that if the students participate in its complaints procedure or the free, statute backed OIA scheme, the time and cost of court proceedings might not be incurred.

However, this request was rejected by the High Court with Senior Master Barbara Fontaine raising concerns over "whether UCL and the OIA have sufficient resources to deal with this volume of complaints". Instead, Senior Master Fontaine made an order to stay proceedings for eight months in order to give time for a settlement to be reached out of court. The order contains a provision for the students to apply for court action after just 4 months if, during that time, the parties are unable to make any progress in terms of a settlement.

In her judgement Senior Master Fontaine stated:

"I encourage the parties in the strongest possible terms to engage in an appropriate form of ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution), which will involve serious attempts by both parties to find a compromise in the manner in which that can be achieved".

Impact on British Universities

Whilst this is the first case to reach court, the outcome is likely to set a precedent for many other universities and could lead to a torrent of litigation. Indeed, the Student Group Claim has brought together more than 120,000 students from numerous universities, all of whom claim to have had their studies adversely affected by Covid and strikes. The aim of the Student Group Claim is, in their words, to provide students with "a fighting chance of getting the compensation and justice they deserve". The Student Group Claim has estimated that students will be able to claim on average £5,000 or more in compensation. The claims are being coordinated by Asserson Law offices and Harcus Parker Limited on a no win no fee basis. Each student can expect to keep at least 65% of whatever compensation they receive, with 35% of the compensation being used to cover the legal fees.

Shimon Goldwater, a solicitor at Asserson who is working on the Student Group Claim said:

“We are hopeful that UCL will now engage constructively in settlement discussions as students have been proposing for many months so that compensation payable to students can be agreed, rather than having to be decided in court.”

Whether a settlement can be reached or if this matter will indeed proceed to trial remains to be seen.

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The legal action could leave UK universities with a collective bill of anywhere between £600m and £1bn in compensation if successful, according to the Student Group Claim.
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