Medical school is difficult to get into and hard to finish.  It takes a great application to be admitted and an incredible amount of discipline to complete, not to mentioned the considerable student loans required for a program that long, which is why I have some sympathy for any med student who feels they have been wronged to the extent that they need legal help.

That is the basic story line in the recent decision of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Saskatchewan in Sahi v. University of Saskatchewan (CanLII), which is a textbook illustration of how courts treat student grievances against their universities.  Varinder Sahi was an undergraduate med student at the university who was forced to discontinue his studies for failing to meet the academic requirements for promotion.   He had to repeat certain previous phases of the program for academic reasons, and thus entered Phase C on academic probation.  Varinder twice failed to satisfy the academic requirements in Phase C and was told that he would not advance.  He was asked to leave the program.  Ouch.

Varinder appealed his expulsion, first to the College of Medicine Academic Appeals Committee, and then to the Bylaws Committee of Council, which is the process under internal university rules.  When he did not get the result he wanted, he brought the matter to court, alleging the med school and the internal bodies did not follow the proper procedures.

The court began its analysis with the following conceptual framework, which is important to know for any student considering a lawsuit against their university on account of bad grades:

The parties agree as to the legal approach to be adopted by the court in analysing this application. Both parties rely on the decision of Barclay J. in Houston v. University of Saskatchewan reflex, (1994), 117 Sask. R. 291, [1994] 4 W.W.R. 387 (Q.B.), where at para. 17 he states:

[17] An excellent review of the law with respect to matters involving grievances between students and a university is contained in the case of Polten v. University of Toronto(1975), 59 D.L.R. (3d) 197 (Div. Ct.). The dispute here arose as a result of a doctoral student’s refusal to change his thesis and the university’s eventual rejection of his formal paper. The judgment of Weatherston, J., is regularly cited as authority for the non-interventionalist approach of the courts towards such disputes. The court held that the standards for a University degree and the assessment of a student’s work are so clearly vested in the university that the courts have no power to intervene merely because it is thought that the standards are too high, or that the student’s work was inaccurately assessed. However, the prerogative writs of certiorari and mandamus are available to a student who has been denied natural justice in respect of his examinations. The university has been entrusted with the higher education of a large number of the citizens of the province. This is a public responsibility that should be subject to some measure of judicial control.

[7]                  The measure of judicial control referenced by Barclay J. in Houstonwas followed by Rothery J. in Mikkelsen v. University of Saskatchewan (Joint Senate-Council Board of Student Appeals), 2000 SKQB 45 (CanLII), 2000 SKQB 45, 191 Sask. R. 53, where she stated at para. 33:

[33]  In ordinary circumstances, upon finding a breach of natural justice on the basis of a denial to be heard, the court would quash the decision of the tribunal and order that the matter be heard according to law…

The court in this case went on to find that the Bylaws Committee of Council – as a reminder, the second internal university body the student confronted – had exceeded its jurisdiction by considering matters and making a decision beyond its scope.  As a result, the court did not comment on the substance of the student’s claim, but ordered the Bylaws Committee of Council to take another crack at it.  The student had asked the court to reinstate him within the program until this dispute could be resolved, but in light of the fact that this would essentially bump another innocent student out of the program the claimant’s request was denied.

Courts generally take the approach that universities know what they are doing.  They have specialized knowledge and are given the room to test students in those areas and make determinations about whether those students have the knowledge or abilities necessary to satisfy a program’s academic requirements.  It would be a waste of judicial resources to have judges double-check grading in areas they know very little about.  Any claim against a university on academic issues has to be procedural to succeed in court.

This look-at-the-process-not-the-grade approach is one of the traditional elements of student grievances.  This means that both students and universities should focus on internal bodies with a similar energy to how they would approach a lawsuit.