Our Toronto education lawyers regularly represent students who have issues with their department and supervisors.
We refer to them as graduate appeals. We frequently receive emails about the following questions:
- Can you sue your PhD advisor?
- What can I do if my advisor is not responding to my emails?
- How do I file a complaint against my PhD advisor?
- Will you represent me at the university hearing?
The complaints relate to communication, harassment, failure to adhere to acceptable standards and other issues of a sensitive nature. Our academic and graduate lawyers have often worked with senior university staff to either resolve the issues informally.
In many instances however, our lawyers will also directly represent students in university hearings (hearing committee) to deal with issues facing masters and PhD students.
The Ontario Court of Appeal has established many years ago precedent in which universities no longer have exclusive jurisdiction in disputes with their students.
Courts have historically distinguished between academic and legal issues when reviewing university conduct. Academic issues are to be resolved using a university’s internal processes. These include informal operational processes and formal appeal processes. If the complainant is not satisfied with the way in which the university has resolved the issue, he has a right of judicial review. Students can sue universities for breach of contract as a remedy. Students may have a claim for damages, but they have to show that the university or college failed to adhere to the contractual terms, and that failure results in some damages to the student. The claim however cannot be of an academic nature.
An example of an issue clearly on the academic end of the spectrum might be a complaint about a mark a student received. An example of an issue clearly on the legal end of the spectrum might be a complaint by a student that a professor assaulted him, or that the university failed to adhere to provide students with adequate thesis supervision. Assault amounts to the tort of battery and does not involve any academic issue. Other instances are misleading students about funding issues, and unfairly denigrating a student’s work, as well as making false statements to the student.
If a plaintiff alleges facts that constitute a cause of action based on tort or breach of contract, the court has jurisdiction even if the dispute stems from an academic or educational activity of the university.
However, by registering at a university, a student subjects him or herself to the discretion of the institution for the resolution of academic issues including evaluation of the quality of the student’s work, the structure and implementation of university programs, and the competence of thesis supervisors. This discretion on the part of universities is very broad and legal counsel will be necessary to develop a strong argument if one is to bring an independent claim with the court.
Contact one of our academic appeals lawyers to speak about your case. All communication is strictly confidential.