RTC Interview Series; Georgina Calvert-Lee

As part of the Reclaim the Campus new blog series on sexual violence and feminism, we interview inspiring actors working within this field. In this first interview we spoke to Equality and Employment barrister Georgina Calvert-Lee. Calvert-Lee, Head of UK practice McAllister Olivarius represented two victims of the Warwick university rape chat scandal. Georgina provides us with an insight into the legal handling of discrimination claims made by students, as well as highlighting where Universities go wrong in their own handling of such claims.

Could you briefly introduce yourself and your work at McAllister Olivarius?

I am an equality and employment barrister, heading the UK Practice at McAllister Olivarius. We work on all aspects of discrimination law, as it arises in the workplace, in the community and in education. The firm has a long history of tackling discrimination and harassment on campus in the US, being a major player in shaping Title IX law; and for the past decade has been developing a similar practice in the UK, holding universities to their legal duties under common law, the Equality Act and other statutes.

How did you get into this line of work?

The Equality Act and discrimination laws are probably most used in the context of work and employment and my own early practice in this area focused on employment law. Even my university clients, who faced harassment or discrimination, were faculty and so their claims fell within the usual employment law framework.

After I was introduced to the 1752 Group, a research and lobbying organization, founded and run by academic’s Dr Anna Bull and Dr Tiffany Page, I came to focus more on systemic failings in the way universities handle complaints of sexual misconduct. The research focus of The 1752 Group relates to staff on student sexual misconduct. But the failings their research exposed applies equally to the way universities handle or mishandle complaints of sexual misconduct between students, or complaints of racial harassment or discrimination.

The findings of The 1752 Group research are repeated time and again in my clients’ cases, whether they make complaints against staff or students, and whether about sex or race discrimination.

Since the failings in the investigation process mean that the person accused of misconduct is accorded more rights than the complainant, the process itself seems discriminatory and this is the legal argument we are advancing in many of our clients’ claims.

Are there any cases of student sexual misconduct that you have worked on that you could give us a brief insight into?

Two particular cases come to mind, since they expose different aspects of what universities often seem to get wrong.

The first is the case of astrophysicist Dr Emma Chapman, who brought an indirect discrimination claim against UCL, where she was studying for her PhD. Her claim related to the way her complaint of sexual misconduct had been handled. The university had, it seems, disposed of her complaint by reaching a confidential settlement agreement with the person she complained about. Dr Chapman had not been asked if she agreed with this; had not been made a party to the agreement; and had no right to enforce it. UCL then tried to settle her own claim with another confidential settlement agreement. The irony was not lost on Dr Chapman, who refused to sign any agreement containing a confidentiality clause (or NDA). While UCL said that confidentiality was a required part of every settlement, they eventually came round and settled her claim without an NDA, proving that it is quite possible! They also went on to say to the press that they would not use NDAs in any future settlements relating to bullying and harassment. This was ground-breaking and a really pleasing outcome, so long as they are adhering to it.

The Warwick case, involving a group chat in which male students discussed their female peers in violent sexual ways, was another case which stands out. This was important for acknowledging that universities’ duty of care extends to online conduct as well as in-person – something that has become all the more important during the pandemic. It also highlighted the need for proper training of those investigating complaints, and for a fair investigation process that was not stacked against the complainant.

Post #MeToo, why do you think there is still such a big problem with sexual violence at UK universities?

#MeToo was not a quick fix event. It was a phenomenon that took place within a historic trend, which includes many other events, including the actions of the suffragettes and campaigns of the suffragists; the anti-discrimination laws of the 1970s; and more recent human rights legislation. Since #MeToo, there have been multiple demonstrations and events calling for change, including those at the University of Warwick, and inspired by Black Lives Matters and the vigils for Sarah Everard. No one movement is likely to dismantle a system of patriarchy that has existed for millennia. It will take the accumulation of many events and movements over time to do this, at universities and in wider society.

Why do you think the University of Warwick continues to mishandle sexual misconduct cases? (No comment here)

What more can Warwick and other universities do to protect their students and staff?

All universities can and should adopt fair processes for investigating complaints of sexual misconduct. This protects all students and staff and reinforces the university’s wider message about its values. McAllister Olivarius and The 1752 Group co-authored a Sector Guidance to Address Staff Sexual Misconduct in UK Higher Education https://1752group.com/sector-guidance/, published in March 2020, which provides concrete advice on how universities can create a fair process. It is not rocket science. It just espouses the simple principle that both parties to a process, the person complaining and the person complained about, must be given equal access to evidence, hearings, outcomes. There is no reason why universities cannot adopt this now.

How can universities tackle rape culture?

This will call for a combination of training and publicity about the university’s values at every level, from the intake of first year undergraduates to the most senior professor. It will require a genuine commitment from the Vice Chancellor’s office, and reports on progress to those on the Governing Body. Having a fair complaints process fits within this wider need for cultural change.

How can students contact you if they require legal support?

Students can contact McAllister Olivarius via a contact form on its website (https://mcolaw.com/contact-us/), where they can also find the main office phone number (020 3048 5959), and email addresses for contacts within each practice area (https://mcolaw.com/contact-us/key-contacts/). The lawyers’ email addresses are also available on the website (https://mcolaw.com/about-mco/meet-the-team/).

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