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Court throws out student’s “largely unintelligible” pleas to continue degree

A student was kicked out from their degree. They wanted to continue it. The University said no. A legal drama ensues.

A former PhD student’s last-ditch bid to continue her degree has been refused by the Supreme Court, bookending four years of prolonged courtroom maneuvering with the student ordered to cover the University’s legal costs. 

Susan Nandutu, an international student from Uganda, was studying a Doctor of Philosophy (Medicine) within the University of Sydney Medical School in 2015 when the University kicked her out of the PhD program.

She had sought a semester-long suspension of the degree in 2012 in order to care for her critically ill mother in Uganda. The Faculty of Medicine refused to grant the suspension and terminated her candidature in the PhD program.

She successfully appealed the termination to the University’s final stop for academic appeals — the Student Appeals Body (SAB) — and was reinstated in the degree. But these fortunes were brief.

The Faculty demanded that she demonstrate why she should be permitted to continue the degree. She did so, but was once again terminated from the program for reasons not on the public record. 

She appealed the decision but this time, her SAB appeal failed. She was out of the degree for good.

In a flurry of legal claims from 2015 onwards, Nandutu urged the Supreme Court to review and overturn the SAB’s decision to terminate her candidature. She said the University had defamed her, breached its duty of care and further breached its contractual obligations, causing her close to $800,000 in economic loss.

She also contended that the University terminated her participation in the PhD program on the basis of a falsified academic record. 

When she attempted to have senior University staff, including Associate Professor Peter McCallum, provide further information on staff members responsible for supervising and monitoring her candidature, the court refused her request.

These claims came to a head last year when the court gave the self-represented Nandutu “a final attempt to get things right” after she breached court procedure on several occasions. It appears, however, little has changed since then. 

Nandutu, still without pro bono legal representation or legal aid, was swiftly outgunned by the University’s top-tier legal firepower who argued that her case was embarrassing, “vague and largely unintelligible” and plagued by technical errors. 

“To a significant extent, they are difficult to comprehend,” the presiding judge said of Nandutu’s arguments, in the court’s judgment.

“They are scandalous to the extent that they include allegations of ethical and criminal misconduct by lawyers for the University without any evidentiary basis.”

“[The proceedings] represent a seemingly never-ending and continually inept attempt to plead claims that remain opaque, to put it mildly.” 

On those grounds, the Supreme Court said Nandutu’s case was an abuse of process and prevented her from commencing proceedings on her termination in the future.

Up to this point, the proceedings had been hampered by several delays. Although Nandutu was initially assisted by pro bono lawyers, they withdrew their help after several months. 

A hearing was adjourned earlier this year when Nandutu became unwell and paramedics were called to the courtroom.

All this means the University racked up a hefty legal bill which would otherwise be borne by Nandutu.

However, an official University spokesperson confirmed it would not seek to enforce any costs orders, leaving the University to pick up its own legal bills.

The sum of lawyers fees accrued by the University is not yet known.

“We strongly deny any wrongdoing in relation to the various claims that this individual has brought against the University, and note the manner in which these claims have been pursued has led to increased costs,” said the spokesperson.

After her candidature was terminated, Nandutu suffered from stress and was recommended treatment from a clinical psychologist, according to medical certificates seen by the court. 

There is some precedent to the University fighting prolonged court cases against students but Nandutu’s case is the longest single case against an individual student known to Honi.

The NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal dismissed a student’s complaints of race and sex discrimination earlier this year.

Nandutu could not be reached for comment.