The BC Court of Appeal recently released its decision in the case of Singh v. University of British Columbia (CanLII), showing just how far the court system can be stretched to give a fair shake to a student with a grievance against a university.  Here is an excerpt of a news piece from CTV’s website on the facts:

A student who flunked four out of her five accounting classes at the University of B.C. has lost her legal battle to get the failing grades struck from her academic record.

Priya Singh took her academic complaint against the school all the way to the B.C. Court of Appeal, where a panel of judges upheld UBC’s decision to keep the blemishes on her file.

Singh, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, entered the UBC accounting diploma program on academic probation in 2007. Under the terms of the probation, she was required to maintain an average of 65 per cent in her classes during the first two terms.

In her first term, Singh took one course. She failed it.

She asked for permission to re-write the exam, saying that she had suffered a panic attack. After she provided a doctor’s note, that request was allowed — but she didn’t follow through on the scheduled re-write date.

During the next two terms, Singh enrolled in four more classes, passing just one of them — barely — with a grade of 50 per cent.

She was told she wouldn’t be allowed to continue in the program.

Singh filed an appeal with the university, arguing that her general anxiety disorder had affected her ability to write exams and she should be allowed to re-write them. The school’s appeal committee denied that request, but said she could retroactively withdraw from the failed classes.

The student claimed that the decision of UBC’s Senate Committee on Appeals of Academic Standing should be set aside under the doctrine of judicial review, which essentially is a doctrine that allows courts to invalidate decisions of administrative tribunals and other adjudicators or government officers.  It is one of the most common types of claims used to bring student grievances before the courts, but it gives the claimant an uphill battle to fight because courts often defer to the wisdom of the tribunal that made the original decision absent some glaring error (see here for another post on other types of claims brought by students).  The facebook case at the University of Calgary, for example, started primarily as a claim for judicial review.

The Singh decision is fairly straightforward and does not reveal any unique legal considerations or surprising twists and turns.  The Court of Appeal, like the Supreme Court before it, simply did not accept the student’s claims.  Even still, this decision is fascinating for several reasons:

  1. It held the attention of the Court of Appeal.  It is incredibly challenging to get your claim heard by the highest court in the province.  Universities generally know what they are doing when handling legal disputes with students.  Any sort of problem is usually dealt with by the internal bodies of the university.  If the student still feels justice was not served, then upon starting a lawsuit in the Supreme Court the university’s lawyers will often try to stop the claim in its tracks by showing that it has no merit and should be thrown out.  If the claim actually makes it to a decision from a judge on the Supreme Court, then any sort of appeal will be vigorously contested and the Court of Appeal is free to decline to hear certain claims that have already been addressed by a lower court.  It is downright surprising that the Court of Appeal agreed to hear this appeal.  For example, Mr. Justice Groberman said in his decision that “the grounds set out in the petition border on the incomprehensible”.  Unfriendly words.
  2. It forced UBC to go the distance.  Like the Maughan case earlier this year (see here for an analysis), student claims that reach the Court of Appeal compel the defendant-universities to hire lawyers and deal with each step of the dispute.  UBC’s legal fees must have been considerable, which it may not be able to retreive from the student as costs.  This leaves aside the loss of public funds incurred by devoting the attention of two levels of courts to a claim the Court of Appeal noted was “incomprehensible”.
  3. It touches on the treatment of students with anxiety disorders.  Last month a major controversy (National Post) erupted at the University of Manitoba about whether a student claiming she suffered from “extreme examination anxiety” could be awarded a PhD despite failing to meet the formal requirements.  That case in Manitoba has not yet been resolved, but it did start a debate on whether students who claim they have certain stress levels should be dealt with flexibly.
  4. It could possibly have been brought as a Charter claim.   The facebook case, mentioned above, showed that courts may be willing to extend the scope of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to include certain university decisions that infringe the rights of students.  In this case, I am curious whether the student could have argued that the university’s decision infringed on her rights under Section 15 of the Charter (Department of Justice).
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