Complaints to the OIA and legal action

14 March 2017

Students at a wide range of higher education institutions (HEIs) in England and Wales often have the option of referring a complaint about their education provider to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) if they are not happy with the outcome of their education provider's internal complaints procedure.

Some students might want to take legal action instead of, or in addition to, referring their case to the OIA. The OIA cannot consider cases that are the subject of court proceedings, and courts often prefer a student to have had an OIA decision before issuing proceedings. However, the deadlines for filing claims are in most cases shorter than the deadline for referring a case to the OIA, and the cost of issuing and applying to stay proceedings, solely in case a student is not happy with the outcome of an OIA review, is high.

For these reasons, the High Court in the case of Zahid has set out guidelines to help HEIs and students manage complaints to the OIA and the courts.

Students who wish to refer their case to the OIA must usually do this within 12 months of the date on their Completion of Procedures Letter (issued by an HEI when it has made a decision on an internal complaint). If they want to preserve their right to take the matter to court, in case they are not satisfied with the OIA's review, they should instead refer their case to the OIA within three months of the date on the Completion of Procedures Letter. The High Court recommends that HEIs include information to this effect in their Completion of Procedures Letter so that students are made aware of this shorter deadline.

Students who are not happy with the OIA's decision and who wish to go to court, should issue proceedings within one month of the OIA's determination. Usually the court deadlines are three months from the date of the HEI's decision in judicial review claims, six months in discrimination matters (with an extension to nine months if a referral to the OIA was made within six months of the date of the HEI's decision) or six years in contract cases.

Full details are in paragraphs 74-94 of the judgment, which also explains what should happen if a student has issued protective proceedings at the same time as referring a case to the OIA (usually the matter will be stayed in the courts) or if a student issues court proceedings and does not want to make a referral to the OIA.