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Former student faces ‘last attempt’ to fight USyd in court

The University has been embroiled in a trial that has lasted over three years.

Law courts

Former PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, Susan Kana Nandutu, has one “last attempt” to sue the University for negligence and discrimination. The Supreme Court of NSW made the ruling last week, before adjourning the hearing to give her time to restructure her case.

Nandutu, who alleges that the University relied on falsified information to kick her out of her PhD program, has been given four weeks from the date of the hearing to bring her ‘quasi-legal’ case in line with legal protocol.

“You really ought to treat this as a final attempt to get this right,” the judge told the plaintiff. “You cannot add things as if it’s a shopping list…You need to bring all of your requests forward to the court at one time.”

The hearing has also been pushed back due to Nandutu’s poor health. She pleaded that she was not well enough to proceed with last week’s hearing, due to severe depression and high blood pressure. Despite not having proof of illness, such as a doctor’s certificate, the court ruled in her favour.

The case revolves around the University’s decision to prevent Nandutu from completing her  Doctor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Medicine.

In 2012, two years into the program, she applied to suspend her progress for a semester, to take care of her critically ill mother in Uganda. According to a friend who spoke at the latest hearing, Nandutu does not have any family in Australia.

The Faculty of Medicine rejected her application, for reasons unspecified.

Nandutu complained to the Student Appeals Body (SAB), the University’s mechanism for resolving academic disputes, and the SAB overruled the faculty.

However, in November 2014, the faculty asked her to provide evidence for why she should be allowed to continue her PhD. She responded to the request in early December. Eight days later, the faculty kicked her out of the course for the second time. The public record does not disclose why the faculty asked her for proof, what she said in response, or why the faculty found her reasons unsatisfactory.

She tried to challenge the decision in January 2015, but the SAB dismissed her appeal. Again, it is unclear why the SAB made this decision.

Nandutu first pressed charges against the University in 2015.

While her claim has changed somewhat since opening proceedings, she is charging the University with negligence: she contends that USyd breached its duty of care, as well as its internal policies, by relying on falsified information to terminate her participation in the PhD program. More specifically, she claims that Associate Professor Christopher Jordens, of the School of Public Health, falsified her academic record and then sent it around the faculty. She says that the SAB made its decision based on this falsified information.

In 2015, she tried to get the University to release purportedly defamatory emails sent by Jordens and Associate Professor Jake Lynch, Chair of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, under GIPA laws. She was not satisfied with the amount of information the University released but she did not pursue the matter further.

Nandutu also alleges that the University failed to support her when she was still enrolled, by denying her supervision and academic support from 2012 to Semester 1 2015. As of July 2018, she has identified this as race and gender-based discrimination, invoking various pieces of anti-discrimination legislation to support her argument.

By legal standards, her accusations against USyd are vague—something that the defendant has used to its advantage and that the court has factored into its decision-making.

The case has been complicated because Nandutu is representing herself and she is not trained as a legal practitioner. The University has been able to easily out-argue herand let her carry the costs of the trial—because she has breached court procedure multiple times.

At the latest hearing, Nandutu said that the court promised her pro bono legal representation but never delivered on this promise. In response, the judge said that the court can confirm she qualifies for assistance, but cannot guarantee that a lawyer will take the case. The court arranged for her to receive free legal representation in 2016, but Nandutu’s assigned lawyers pulled out a few months into the arrangement. Legal Aid NSW have also refused the case.

Honi understands that Nandutu is still looking for pro bono legal representation.