GLO would add “unnecessary cost and expense” to student Covid claims

UCL: Dispute over contractual duty to students

Making a group litigation order (GLO) would add “unnecessary cost and expense” to already expensive claims from university students over the lack of in-person teaching, a High Court master has ruled.

Master Cook said the costs of the first one-day hearing of the GLO application in the case, in May last year, came to over £227,400 for the claimants and over £329,400 for University College London (UCL).

The 5,000 students – represented by Asserson Law Offices and Harcus Parker – have obtained litigation funding of £4.4m and paid an initial after-the-event insurance premium of £740,000.

The solicitors are working under a damages-based agreement where they keep 35% of any proceeds, according to the Student Group Claim website they have set up. This covers more than just UCL.

Rejecting the application for a GLO, Master Cook said: “The overall costs of this litigation will be substantial. The parties are agreed that the test cases will be subject to costs management by the court.

“What is imperative is that these claims are now progressed. In my judgment the making of a GLO would delay that process and add unnecessary cost and expense.”

The students were at UCL from 2017 to 2022, during a time of strike action by lecturers over pensions and the pandemic. They argue that UCL breached its contracts with them by failing to provide in-person tuition and access to facilities.

UCL is defending the claims in full, partly on the basis that it was not under a contractual duty to provide in-person teaching and access to facilities.

Master Cook said the GLO first came before the High Court in May last year, when Senior Master Fontaine stayed the application for eight months to allow alternative dispute resolution to take place.

He said it was clear that Master Fontaine “envisaged that some form of collective action, GLO or otherwise would be appropriate” if this was not successful.

Master Fontaine had expressed concern at the level of costs, noting that, even at 100%, the damages would likely provide a “modest sum” for each claimant.

UCL was “a charitable institution, and a leading UK university, and its management time and funds could be more productively spent than on substantial legal costs”, she added.

Counsel for the students argued that the GLO regime offered “tangible benefits” to both defendants and claimants by the “efficient funnelling of all claims into a single proceeding which is cost effective for the defendant to deal with and the existence of a cut-off date which gives the defendant certainty about the size and shape of the claimant body”.

Counsel for UCL said that the university was a charity, with a right of access to justice and to have the “5,000-odd claims brought against it” resolved as soon as possible.

Master Cook said: “I do not consider a GLO will help to promote fairness, save costs or allow the claims to be dealt with in a timely and efficient manner.”

He said counsel for UCL’s concession that a case management order could contain a costs-sharing provision was “an important factor”, which would result in “fairness with respect to the liability for costs” and access to justice for the claimants would not be reduced.

The “creative use” of the court’s existing case management powers would be better, the judge concluded.

The claimants have yet to indicate the level of damages they were seeking, he noted, while it was unlikely that many more claimants would come forward, making a group register unnecessary.

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