Anyone who has ever been involved in the Fitness to Practise (FTP) process will know just how serious and stressful it can be. It is not something to be taken lightly, and whereas in the professional arena there is no doubt that anyone subjected to the process would require and warrant qualified legal representation, it would seem that for students facing the same in the University setting, the automatic right to legal representation is just not there.
Representing students on a daily basis on a number of issues, I have often come across having to justify to Higher Education Institutions why a student should be allowed legal representation, not only at the hearing, but during the investigation stage too. That cannot be right or fair?
FTP is something that hangs over all medical, dental, social work, nursing and midwifery students, to name a few, throughout their studies. I have been involved in cases for all types of students and it never ceases to amaze me the level of inequality some students have had to endure before they even reach me.
The basic principles of a fair trial, underpinned by Article 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, appear to be of no concern to many a University FTP Panel.
I have a number of FTP cases at present, all at different stages of the process. It goes without saying that being instructed from the outset of the matter, is always best. You get to navigate the case from the start and prevent any missteps on the part of the client. You get to keep a watchful eye on the University and I also find that once the University know they are being watched, their efforts to be fair are that much greater. Of course not all students can afford qualified legal representation, and some are put off getting legal help by either the University or even the Student Union. It is suggested to students that if you get legal help 1) you have something to hide and 2) you will be treated much harsher. Not true.
Not every student instructs early on, a number try and handle the situation themselves, but when you think that a whole team behind the scenes at the University are collaborating and working together to get you out, the odds are really stacked against the lone student.
I have a case at present where the student has been through the whole process alone, including the appeal stage. The University took in excess of six months to investigate the case and then gave the student a mere 10 working days to submit their statement and evidence, sound fair? The University provided no signed witness statements and produced no witnesses at the FTP Hearing itself. This did not seem to perturb the FTP Panel, who despite not hearing a shred of evidence, found the student unfit and withdrew them from the course.
Universities have to accept, whereas it may not be a court of law, FTPs are quasi-legal proceedings, the outcomes of which fundamentally impact the students’ career and future life trajectory. Findings cannot be made without the basic legal principles, as embodied by Article 6, being adhered to.