Revealed: How unis issue meaningless fines to students guilty of sexual assault

Students are being given fines as small as £75

Students found guilty of sexual assault at university are being inappropriately punished with fines, a Tab investigation has found

Although students have been given fines in high profile cases before, our investigation found that the practice – considered inappropriate by experts and many universities – is still happening, often in amounts no greater than £100 a time.

Ann Olivarius, the lawyer who helped victims of Warwick group chat take legal action against the uni, says the small fines “diminish the seriousness of the violation,” and “amount to no more than a little slap on the wrist”.

Details of punishments obtained by The Tab using Freedom of Information laws reveal how small fines have been used by universities to tackle the campus problem.

Nottingham has issued less than five fines this academic year for sexual harassment, but cited data protection as a reason for not disclosing exact numbers. A total of £500 in fines were issued in eight harassment cases – including racist harassment – working out at an average of £62.50.

Leicester issued a £300 fine in 2018-19. This was donated to charity, and the student was also given a “reprimand and suspension of specific privileges”. Glasgow issued a £100 fine in an unspecified year since 2016. Bath issued three between 2016 and 2019, totalling £495, or an average of £165.

Sussex issued a £75 fine, along with no other punishment, in 2017-18, according to their response to The Tab. Manchester Met issued fewer than five, between 2016 and 2020, at £100 each. The university was unable to say how recently it had used fines for sexual harassment.

Warwick used them in 2017/18 and 2018/19, however says it wouldn’t use fines when more serious penalties, like expulsion, are used. These fines appear to be linked the the Warwick group chat case.

However, using fines to punish student sexual assault is hardly widespread. These universities and examples are the exception, not the rule. In fact, several universities rule them out. Bath told The Tab it stopped using fines in any sexual misconduct case in September 2019. Lancaster and Cardiff said fines were inappropriate for student misconduct, and so do not use them. Brunel stopped using fines in 2017, after updating their rules following a judgement from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

Sometimes the money goes to charity, or sometimes to central university funds. The Tab found no examples of money going directly to victims. Nottingham makes clear that “the University does not profit from the funds raised from the discipline fines as the money is put into the Student Hardship Fund.”

The perception that unis might profit from sexual misconduct, however, is a reason for unis to avoid fines, says Graham Towl, Professor of Forensic Psychology at Durham University.

“I think it will get an institution into far more difficulty than it has benefits,” he said. “There may be seen to be a parallel with the very contentious non disclosure agreements.”

“I think there are problems with using financial sanctions. I would advise against them,” Towl, who has just written a book on how unis should tackle student sexual violence,” told The Tab.

Fines are appropriate when property has been damaged, but not in cases of sexual misconduct, believes Towl. They don’t directly change behaviour, don’t repair the damage to the individual, and aren’t effective in a purely punitive sense.

“It is unwise to try and quantify that in some way because in one sense, an amount of money could never compensate for someone’s experience in that sort of way,” says Towl.

Dr Ann Olivarius, a lawyer who specialises in university sexual assault cases and represented the victims of the Warwick group chat, agrees that the fines issued by universities fall short of doing anything to help the survivors of sexual assault.

“This is something very serious,” Olivarius told The Tab. “And so by assigning £300, it diminishes the seriousness of the violation. These are events that often ruin people’s lives. But a small penalty that the perp must pay is better than no payment.

“In this country, they’re going to be small fees. The fees under discussion amount to no more than a little slap on the wrist. Nobody’s actually going to assign to a student the true therapy costs that a student will need to put the perpetrator’s bad acts behind them or to become healthy again. This could easily amount to over £100,000 worth of therapy over the next decades.

Olivarius suggests paying the claimant’s legal fees may be a more effective deterrent. However, she suggests flipping the scales. “The better thing is to get the universities and administrators to pay for having a dangerous environment where rapes happen routinely.”

Rachel Watters, the NUS’s Women’s Officer, told The Tab: “NUS has campaigned for many years for universities to develop robust policies on sexual violence and harassment which prioritise prevention and providing support and justice for survivors. While it is vital that individual perpetrators are held accountable through university disciplinary procedures, individual accountability must be accompanied by measures such as bystander training to prevent future incidents of sexual violence and harassment and make the institution safe for all students.”

The University of Nottingham told The Tab: “Everyone in our community should feel safe at all times from any form of harassment or misconduct. We educate our staff and students on the standards of behaviour we expect and promote safety and awareness initiatives to protect our community against sexual misconduct.

“Where incidents do occur, we support students in reporting these in person to police, our security team, welfare officers and hall wardens, or online via web forms, email and mobile app.

“Offenders should face charges in court and criminal penalties where at all possible and the University will apply additional sanctions. These are determined on the advice of police and our internal investigation teams as appropriate to the case, and can include expulsion, fines, warnings and education programmes.

“The University has recently updated its Sexual Misconduct Policy and is engaged in a detailed programme to review and upgrade all policies and action to tackle sexual misconduct. Details of our education programme, standards of behaviour and reporting mechanisms are posted on our Community webpages.”

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