Occasionally, universities are dragged to court by students in a way that makes me pity institutions of higher learning.   One example of this type of event is reflected in the decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice released last month in Murray v. Lakehead University (CanLII), where the student-plaintiff started the lawsuit but didn’t even bother to show up to argue his case.  The student, Robert Murray, apparently lived near the courthouse, and the court took a 20 minute break while people tried to reach him at home - but nothing.

Mr. Murray started the lawsuit by filing an incomplete “statement of claim” that, simply put, alleged his thesis supervisor negligently performed her duties by failing to provide him with the proper oversight.  As a result, he demanded the university pay him the gross salary he would have earned had he decided not to spend two years on the degree, which he calculated was equal to $70,000.

Lakehead, which is located in northern Ontario,  took the same procedural step commonly taken by universities when confronted with a claim by a student: an application to dismiss the claim on the basis that it does not “disclose a reasonable cause of action”.  In this case, the university maintained that (1) the claim does not show the essential ingredients of a negligence claim; and (2) there is no viable claim because of the considerable discretion granted to universities in academic matters.

On the first point, the court clearly emphasized how an allegation of negligence must be structured:

As to the substantive law, a claim in negligence must establish that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; that the defendant breached that duty of care; and that damages resulting were caused by the breach of the duty of care.

On the second point, the court referred to Jaffer v. York University and Gauthier c. Saint-Germain, two recent decisions of the Ontario Court of Appeal (discussed here and here) that confirm the following rule regarding student claims again universities: the courts will dismiss such a claim unless the student can show that the subject matter of the claim falls outside the broad discretion granted to universities over academic matters.  

Courts do not consider themselves to be appropriately situated to supervise academic issues at universities.  The rationale for the broad discretion approach is set out in the following passage in Blasser v. Royal Institution for Advancement of Learning (CanLII):

In any university, … there are certain internal matters and disputes that are best decided within the academic community rather than by the Courts. This is so, not only because the Courts are not as well equipped as the universities to decide matters such as academic qualifications, grades, the conferring of degrees and so on, but also because these matters ought to be able to be decided more conveniently, more quickly, more economically and at least as accurately by those who are specialized in educational questions of that kind. In addition, of course, there is very good reason not to risk compromising the essential independence of universities by undue interference in their academic affairs.

This rationale may be problematic for a number of reasons, but the first step, which was not taken by the student in Murray, is to show up.