We get regular queries from staff and students who are trying to figure out what to do in relation to sexual harassment cases. Unfortunately we have little resource for casework support – we very much wish we did have more but we are focusing our time and energy on sector-wide reform in the hope that this will make things better for everyone.
However, we have compiled some of the common answers that we give to queries from staff and students about deciding to report/trying to push a case forwards within or outside of your institution. Scroll down for the sections below:
- Deciding to make a complaint as a current student/member of staff
- Ensuring your safety
- Making a complaint as an alumni
- During the complaints process
- After the complaint is completed
- Legal advice
- Going public
- Social media
- Accessing support
Deciding to make a complaint as a current student/member of staff
This is of course a big decision. We’d recommend you get in touch with your union for support and advice at the earliest possible stage. They will know what the situation is within your institution, and what strategies are likely to be successful.
For academic staff this is UCU. They will also support postgraduate members who have a complaint relating to their role as teaching/academic staff, but not relating to experiences as a student ☹. We know that people are sometimes reluctant to talk to UCU because they know/fear that the perpetrator(s) of sexual misconduct/bullying are powerful in the union – this is a legitimate fear, and if this is the case for you then you may be able to go straight to the regional branch of your union. Another option is to contact UCU’s new confidential email SHsupport@ucu.org.uk or call their dedicated helpline on 0800 138 872.
For students, this is your local students’ union within your institution. Postgraduate students – you ARE members of your students’ union and you should use their services if you need support relating to your role as a student, even if you think of the union as being something for undergrads. They will have permanent, paid staff members who support students making a complaint, and these staff are an invaluable resource. They can talk you through what would be involved in the process of making a complaint.
For both staff and students, bear in mind that if you put in a formal complaint, you will then be obliged to keep all details of the complaint confidential during the process of investigation and also during an appeal if this happens. This can take many months. Therefore, make sure you speak to all the allies who you need on board before putting in a formal complaint. While we have written extensively about the need for more transparency around the outcomes of complaints, we support confidentiality during the complaints process; this is important for protecting everyone involved, even though it can be very difficult.
At this stage, also make sure you document as much evidence as possible including emails, text/whatsapp message, social media messages, names of people who might have witnessed encounters, times and dates of incidents. This means that if you do decide to go ahead with a complaint then you have everything ready.
Bear in mind that some institutions have time limits on making a complaint as short as one month from the last incident. In addition, if you want to go to an employment tribunal there are also similarly short time limits (although we are hoping this will change soon).
If you are having trouble having your complaint acted on or taken seriously by your institution, you may want to try to escalate it to someone senior, for example by using the institution’s whistleblowing policy. Whistleblowers UK have an advice line for which you can talk this over in advance of taking this step. Using a whistleblowing policy should give you some protection and should give you the option of doing so anonymously if needed. Another option is to try and escalate your concern to someone more senior in your institution. Sometimes we find that complaints get lost within the department/lower echelons of the institution, and you need to get someone in a position of power to take action to get it investigated. You could try the head of HR, head of safeguarding (who should be named somewhere on your institution’s policies in this area), the vice-chancellor, and/or the chair of the board of governors (again there should be a list of names of the board of governors publicly available).
Ensuring your safety
Whether or not you decide not to go ahead with a complaint, you will be needing some protection from the person/people who are subjecting you to misconduct. And of course, people’s sole aim is often to get the misconduct to stop. One thing you can ask for towards this end is a no-contact agreement. These are not yet widespread across the sector, and they are so far mainly being used as a precautionary measure while a formal complaint is being investigated. However, we suggest that they should be used in order to keep students safe where there is a disclosure but not necessarily a formal complaint. This is an agreement that is voluntary on both sides, whereby they agree not to be in the same space on campus at the same time, and/or not to contact each other.
This idea is currently used as a ‘no-contact order’ at the end of disciplinary procedures as part of an upheld complaint, as detailed in Clarissa Humphreys and Graham Towl’s new book, Addressing Student Sexual Violence in Higher Education: A Good Practice Guide (out May 2020). They also have a template for a no-contact order that could be adapted for use as a no-contact agreement. In cases where students request these (eg from their head of department) in the absence of a formal complaint, we expect that you might have to push quite hard to get the institution to adopt them, as it is not an established practice. Nevertheless we think this could be a helpful step in keeping people safe in the absence of a formal complaint.
Making a complaint as an alumni
Most universities have time limits on complaints and will not take complaints from past students. This means that if you want to make a complaint or raise a concern as a past student, even if it is about a member of staff who is still employed at the institution, there are unfortunately no mechanisms for taking this forward most of the time. This is a major problem because staff and students may still be at risk. However, look at the institution’s policies on complaints, which should be publicly available online, and see if you can find any information about their particular policy in this area.
In the absence of a formal complaints mechanism that is available to alumni, if want to formally alert the institution about someone on their staff who you think is a risk to other students/staff, you could write a letter and copy in the head of HR, the person named on the whistleblowing policy (which should be publicly available online), and the safeguarding lead, if you can find out who it is (it might be the head of wellbeing, or head of counselling). This letter could explain that you want to raise safeguarding concerns about a member of staff due to your experiences while you were a student. In our experience, this route does not produce any results, but at least you have taken some action to alert the institution.
During the complaints process
One of the major issues that we hear about – both in our research and in people contacting us – is that complaints process take an incredibly long time, or they stall and don’t seem to be going anywhere. This is a huge issue. One option if this happens, if you’re a student in England or Wales, is to go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. Usually they will not take on complaints unless students have completed the process at their institution, but they have clarified that if the complaint is not progressed, is being obstructed, or remains unresolved as far as the student is concerned after an unreasonable length of time, the OIA will consider accepting it for review even if the student does not have a Completion of Procedures letter. See further information below.
If you’re a student in Scotland, the equivalent body is the SPSO. We are not aware if they will allow complaints before the end of institutional processes – if you find yourself in this position and are able to speak to them and clarify this, please let us know and we’ll update this guidance. Similarly, if you have any information about the situation in Northern Ireland, please let us know and we’ll add it here.
More generally a problem we hear about is complainants not being kept informed about the progress of their complaint, and not being protected from victimisation or malicious rumour-mongering by the accused party. Sometimes, if you are in a position to be able to do this, a letter from a lawyer can be very helpful in getting progress on your complaint. This can be a letter before action, or even simply a letter stating that you have a lawyer keeping an eye on the progress of your complaint.
After the complaint is completed
- Students in England and Wales: Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) is an independent body set up to review student complaints on a range of issues, including complaints about staff members. We encourage students who have made a complaint to their university regarding any form of staff sexual misconduct to consider contacting the OIA if they feel this complaint has been unreasonably delayed, or has been dealt with inadequately.
The OIA has published a new section of the Good Practice Framework: Disciplinary procedures. The guidance is drawn from the OIA’s broad experience of handing complaints, and was put together in consultation with the Good Practice Framework Steering Group. They have also released a briefing note on complaints involving sexual misconduct and harassment, which can be found here.
Key point: Students can go to the OIA without a Completion of Procedures Letter if the complaints process at their institution is not progressing.
The OIA will not review a complaint unless the higher education provider has had the opportunity to look at it first. This means that normally the student needs to have completed the provider’s internal processes before complaining to the OIA, and the provider will have given them a Completion of Procedures Letter. The OIA can accept a complaint for review when the student has not completed the higher education provider’s internal processes in “exceptional circumstances”. The OIA will do this if it believes there has been undue delay by the provider in progressing the complaint and there appears to be no prospect of early resolution, where it believes the higher education provider might be obstructing the complaint, or where there is nothing to be gained by progressing with the internal processes.
This means that if a student makes a complaint about the behaviour of another student or a staff member, and their complaint is not progressed, is being obstructed, or remains unresolved as far as the student is concerned after an unreasonable length of time, the OIA will consider accepting it for review even if the student does not have a Completion of Procedures letter. You can phone the Casework Support Team at the OIA for an initial discussion on 0118 959 9813 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm) or send a query via their website.
You need to submit your complaint to the OIA within 12 months of the end of the complaints process at your university, but the sooner the better. If the complaints process is yet to be completed, you can contact the OIA at any point where you feel the process has been unnecessarily delayed, or if the process is having an adverse impact on your mental health. It will be helpful if you can provide evidence of either of these issues if possible. See the OIA website for guidance on how to make a complaint.
Be aware, however, that there are limits to what the OIA can do. They can review whether the institution has followed its own complaints process, but they will not look at the evidence again. This is problematic because in sexual misconduct cases, often the issue is around the lack of expertise of investigators and/or decision-makers, or failure to adequately assess the evidence provided. At this stage there’s nothing you can do about this – infuriatingly – other than take legal action (at your own expense, see below).
If you’re a student in Scotland, the equivalent body is the SPSO.
It is unfortunately very difficult to find a lawyer who will take on this work pro bono. If anyone knows of good feminist lawyers who are willing to do this then let us know! This is a huge gap, and there is also space for campaigning work around raising money for legal funds in this area.
For general legal advice, we would recommend contacting the legal advice line offered by the Rights of Women charity.
If you want to think about taking a legal case against your university, this is where it gets costly. If you are able to pay for this, then we recommend McAllister Olivarius, the discrimination law firm who we have worked with extensively and who have a lot of experience in successfully taking cases against UK universities.
At some point, you might get to the point where you want to go public about what’s happening to you. This is usually a last resort and you should be aware that it is unlikely that the media will be able to name you or the person you are accusing, unless there are findings upheld in court. However, there is a lot of media interest in sexual misconduct in higher education at the moment and so journalists may be interested in reporting on your story without naming names, as background or as an anonymised source. Trusted journalists we have worked with include David Batty at the Guardian and Rianna Croxford at the BBC. Generally journalists will be looking not for one-off stories but for stories that fit within a wider narrative they are working on, so you can contact them but don’t be offended if you don’t hear back!
One of our supporters has also had a positive experience using http://www.whistleblower.co.uk (though we cannot vouch for them personally). They offer a confidential service aimed at getting coverage in the media and/or setting up a legal strategy for clients. This allowed her to submit her story and then be contacted by interested journalists.
If you contact the media, be aware of a few self-care rules. Always clarify at the outset with the journalist whether you are on or off the record, and don’t be afraid of insisting on speaking off the record only. This means they can use the story as background but won’t quote you. We would also suggest asking a journalists if they have any training in working with survivors of sexual violence or harassment (for example with the Angles project), or you can ask them to send you some stories they have done in this area so that you can get a sense of whether they report stories sensitively. If they put any pressure on you to be named in a story or to appear in person in the media, then we suggest walking away immediately. Journalists who work in this area should know better than to pressure people – it has to be 100% your decision and you need to take the time that you need to think it over.
You should be aware that naming perpetrators of sexual misconduct on social media such as twitter can open you up to being sued for libel. We would therefore recommend avoiding doing this.
This is a hugely draining and difficult process to go through so do make sure you’re getting support along the way, both from friends/family/colleagues, but also from specialist organisations, for example:
- Switchboard LGBT+ Helpline
Phone: 0300 330 0630 from 10am-10pm every day
- For people identifying as women: Rape Crisis national helpline. You can call anonymously and confidentially to discuss any experience of sexual harassment or sexual violence.
From 12:00-14:30 and 19:00-21:30 every day of the year
Monday to Friday 15:00-17:30
Phone number 0808 802 9999
Some local Rape Crisis centres offer free counselling or other support services. You can find your local Rape Crisis centre via their national website.
- For women and men: Safeline is on 0808 800 5005. They also offer support via text message or online chat
- For all genders: The Survivors’ Trust also have information about local centres that offer counselling and other support services, including advocacy. You can find your local centre here.
- You may also wish to seek counselling or support from your university’s counselling or wellbeing service, or students’ union.
Other helpful organisations:
Rights of Women, a legal charity, run a helpline on sexual harassment at work.
Whistleblowers UK have an excellent advice line available via their website.