In the recent, highly publicised, case of Faiz Siddiqui v. University of Oxford [2016] EWHC 3150 (QB), the High Court considered whether a former university student's claim for negligent teaching should be struck out or summary judgment entered on the ground that it was hopelessly bad on the merits and also plainly time barred.

Background

The claimant, Faiz Siddiqui, was a history student at the University of Oxford, who sat his final examinations in June 2000 and obtained a 2:1 degree.

He sought damages of £1 million for negligent teaching against the university, which he believed resulted in his obtaining an inferior classification to that he should have been awarded. His case was that the poor teaching of one part of the course called "the Indian Special Subject" (ISS) was due, in large part, to the unavailability of teaching staff. He also alleged that the university inadequately handled certain medical information about him, with the consequence that it was not passed on to the right people and acted upon.

He argued that, in failing to get a higher 2:1 or a first class degree, he was denied the chance of becoming a high-flying international commercial barrister. In addition, he alleged that his anxiety, depression and insomnia had been significantly exacerbated by the wrongs he claimed to have suffered.

The claim was issued on 26 August 2014. Following disclosure and exchange of witness statements, the university applied to strike out and/or sought summary judgment so as to prevent the case from going to trial.

Judgment

The court was tasked with considering five issues at the strike-out/summary hearing. Mr Justice Kerr gave a determination on each as follows:

1. Whether the claim founded on negligent delivery of the ISS course had a real prospect of success on its merits

Whilst the judge noted that claims for negligent educational provision were notoriously difficult to win, he decided that it would be necessary for the trial judge to determine how much, if any, of the claim was unsustainable. The university's documentary response could well be found at a trial to show that there was a debate within the university, not about the adequacy of the teaching resources available for the ISS course – everyone agreed that they were to say the least stretched – but about which person or body should bear responsibility for the insufficiency of teaching. The mere fact that the claimant had sought to raise challenges to the exercise of academic judgment without expert evidence was not fatal to the claim.

2. Whether the claim founded on alleged mishandling of medical information about the claimant had a real prospect on its merits

The conflicting witness accounts were a matter for trial. Indeed, the issue of vicarious liability for any breach of duty on the part of the claimant's doctor was conceded by the defendant to be a matter fit for argument at trial, rather than summary determination.

3. Whether the claimant had a real prospect of establishing that the "date of knowledge" within section 14 of the Limitation Act 1980 fell less than three years before the issue of the claim

Given that Mr Siddiqui graduated in June 2000, his claim was outside the primary limitation period to bring a claim. However, under section 14 of the Limitation Act 1980 this period is extended if a claimant can establish that he only had the requisite knowledge less than three years before the issue of the claim. The judge considered that one way of determining this would be to ask the claimant at which point he firmly believed that his condition was capable of being attributed to acts or omissions of the university to warrant going to a solicitor for legal advice. A trial judge might well decide that the claimant's perception about the poor teaching was not enough to make it reasonable for him to begin investigating whether to pursue a claim against the university. Oral evidence at trial would be necessary to determine this point.

4. Whether the claimant had a real prospect of establishing that the limitation period should be extended because of deliberate concealment of any fact relevant to the claimant's right of action (section 32 of the Limitation Act 1980)

To have been successful here, the claimant would have had to show that some fact relevant to the claim had been concealed or withheld. The judge considered that the claimant may not have known about the university's failure to act on its knowledge of the unavailability of teaching staff when he sat his finals and was awarded his degree. The section 32 issues should, therefore, be left to the trial judge to determine.

5. Whether the claimant had a real prospect of persuading the court at trial that it would be just and equitable to disapply the primary limitation and allow the action to proceed, pursuant to section 33 of the Limitation Act 1980

Under section 33 of the Limitation Act 1980 the court has discretion to extend the three year limitation period for bringing a claim for personal injury. The judge was firmly of the view that this issue ought to be determined with the benefit of oral evidence and cross-examination. He did not consider that this was a case in which the prospect of the trial judge being persuaded to extend time and disapply the primary limitation period was too low to justify a trial of the issue.

In light of these determinations, Mr Justice Kerr declined to strike out the claim and refused the university's application for summary judgment. He was satisfied that the defendant has a case to answer that was fit for trial in relation to both limbs of the claim for damages, and that the claimant had a real prospect of succeeding in persuading the court to entertain his claim, either on the basis that it was not out of time, or by persuading the court that it was just and equitable to allow the action to proceed.

Commentary

The decision is a useful reminder of the hurdles that remain in place to obtain summary judgment of any claim. The burden of proof in a summary application is on the applicant, who must show that the other party has no real prospect of success at trial and that there is no other compelling reason why the case or issue should be disposed of at a trial. Asking a court to determine a claim at a summary stage, if successful, will mean that the case will no longer proceed, and so a judge will wish to scrutinise the application. Whilst failure to obtain summary judgment is not an indication of the likely success of the case at a future trial, in this case it was not a claim that was totally hopeless and plainly time barred, as the defendant university had argued. The claim also highlights the importance of determining whether or not there is some other reason for trial, such as the requirement for oral testimony. As to the underlying claim, it turns very much on its facts, but if Mr Siddiqui is ultimately successful then other claims will no doubt follow.