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06 May 2021

Everyone’s Invited: are university investigations a proportionate response?

5 mins

Everyone’s Invited was founded by Soma Sara in June 2020 in a bid to tackle what she claimed was an abuse and rape culture in education establishments. The website and Instagram profile allows those who believe they have been the subject of sexual assault to report their stories through testimonies shared anonymously.

More than 15,000 people have since posted testimonies on the site, with a surge in recent weeks following the death of 33 year old Sarah Everard. Everyone's Invited has provided a platform on which an overwhelming number of reported experiences and instances of abuse at schools, colleges and universities across the country have been documented.

The number of universities named emerged days after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson ordered a crackdown on student rape culture and called for universities to follow a new emergency code. 

University policy on sexual assault

Most universities already have a policy and it is important that these are reviewed, now. The mismatch between anonymous reporting on Everyone's Invited and what is formally reported suggests something is going seriously wrong. But a knee jerk response must also be avoided to ensure that fairness applies to all. The fact that so many have disclosed sexual assault on this platform has, understandably, caused enormous concern. Universities need to ensure that they have a transparent and robust policy to ensure that all voices are heard, students are given support, and an independent investigation is carried out with a fair adjudication. It must also be ensured that there are appropriate sanctions, and that results of the investigation and outcome are properly communicated.

Should universities carry out the investigations and adjudications?

Investigations into allegations of sexual assault are always problematic, even for experienced investigators such as police officers, because generally there are no witnesses, the allegations relate to behaviour which is private, people sometimes behave differently or out of character in those circumstances, particularly when alcohol or drugs may have been consumed. Fresher’s week is the perfect storm of young people coming together and engaging in the partying and freedoms that many may not have experienced at home.

Universities do not have expertise in the area of investigating or adjudicating on alleged sexual assaults and it is essential that they seek such expertise when carrying out the investigation and adjudication to ensure an impartial and non-judgement led approach. If an allegation is of an extremely serious nature, generally the police will be involved in any event and any university investigation should be suspended while the police carry out their investigation.

Investigation and adjudication without police involvement

In those cases where the police are not involved and the universities conduct their own investigation and adjudication, in order to protect and support those who report sexual assault, most policies make it clear that those reporting the assault are believed. This means they are provided with appropriate welfare support and have protection in the university setting by not having to live in the same accommodation block and not having common study areas with the alleged perpetrator.

All policies should also ensure that, while the investigation is ongoing, the accused also knows that their voice is heard, they have welfare support and their ability to study is not compromised until a decision on the allegations is made. If the accused has to change their accommodation or how they study and learn, this should also be carried out with support and sensitivity, highlighting it may well be in their best interests while the investigation is ongoing. Although the allegations may be horrific and disturbing, it is always important to keep in mind that they are allegations and no determination on them has yet been reached. Furthermore, all witnesses or potential witnesses should be cautioned not to discuss the evidence to ensure it is not contaminated.

The investigation should not only be based on witness testimony but all witnesses and the accused should be asked to disclose their phone evidence as accounts can develop over time. Obviously they cannot be compelled to do so, but the question should be asked. Any CCTV should also be secured.

Do independent investigations require legal input?

Once an independent investigation is carried out, this needs to be adjudicated by an independent Tribunal, ideally a retired Judge or someone of similar standing. This is because allegations of this nature are so serious and, potentially life changing, for both parties, it is essential that the evidence is properly examined and all parties are given the opportunity to speak and be questioned at an internal hearing. If allegations are of a sexual nature, legal representation should be allowed.

The reason why sexual allegations should be given special status in university investigations is because of the potentially devastating consequences for all, and the difficulties with investigations of this nature. For an individual accused of a sexual assault, the reputation damage and consequences may be insurmountable and life changing, yet the allegation may have arisen out of a misunderstanding, regret, embarrassment, upset or disbelief.

From our experience we have noted that some universities have policies which reflect our suggestions above, but many do not. If a review is to take place, we urge that all universities implement policies where both those reporting sexual assaults and the accused have the benefit of thorough investigations and an independent adjudication, and that their welfare is protected throughout.

For more information about our Crime team and the criminal defence and extradition services they provide, please visit our webpage here.

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