Public university students facing disciplinary charges may now hire an attorney to help them throughout the process, according to a new state law.
The legislation, signed into law last week by Gov. Pat McCrory, could change the tenor of student conduct hearings at UNC system campuses across North Carolina. In the past, students could have an attorney advise them informally, but for the most part lawyers were barred from presenting evidence, cross examining witnesses or other direct representation during campus proceedings.
The new law would apply in student conduct matters, but not in cases of academic misconduct. It would allow students to have an attorney at their own expense, or a non-attorney advocate, fully participate during any disciplinary procedure. One exception would be in student honor courts that are strictly run by students, such as the honor system at UNC-Chapel Hill. But it would apply in campus judicial hearings involving sexual assault, for example.
North Carolinas law appears to be the first in the nation to extend the option of legal representation to students for college disciplinary proceedings, said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The foundation advocated for the legislation, which had stalled as a separate bill earlier in the session.
Many North Carolinians and Americans generally dont realize that when you are accused of campus crimes you almost never are allowed to have a lawyer to represent you in those tribunals, Shibley said. So I think its a common sense reform.
The law does not require the state to provide attorneys for students who cant afford them, the way criminal courts do, and its unclear who would pay for low-income students to have legal representation, said Tom Shanahan, interim general counsel for the UNC systems General Administration. In addition, Shanahan said, campus judicial proceedings could become more costly and protracted under the new law.
The UNC Board of Governors has already tweaked its policy to allow students legal representation to conform with the legislation. But campuses are now studying their campus conduct rules and procedures to see how they may need to be changed, Shanahan said.
The concern was that the way the student conduct process developed throughout higher education has typically not involved attorneys, Shanahan said. Its been seen as part of the educational process.
On Monday, the issue seemed to be a stumbling block to a UNC-Chapel Hill task force overhauling the universitys sexual assault policies and procedures. The panel was launched as the university is under investigation by the federal government for its reporting and handling of sexual misconduct cases.
Members of the group said they wanted to contemplate a restorative justice as one solution, in which the needs of victims and accused would be met yet offenders would take responsibility for wrongdoing.
That wont happen if students get lawyered up, task force members reasoned.
Now that we inject lawyers, its going to be adversarial, said George Hare, deputy chief of the campus police. Its game on.
Others say allowing legal representation will lead to inequity because some students wont have money for lawyers.
Andrea Pino, a UNC-CH student and one of five women who filed the federal complaint against the university, said surviving a sexual assault is difficult enough without scrambling to hire a lawyer.
Although this law offers an ideal a process in which both parties would have the right to equal protection and support it ignores the economic difficulties that a survivor would have to endure to retain an attorney if his or her assailant does so, Pino wrote in an email. Struggling with record student loan debt and tuition hikes, the last thing that a survivor needs is to have to deal with the hurdle of legal fees instead of focusing on their own healing.
But Shibley said universities need to be held accountable for their judicial proceedings. Students can quickly become overwhelmed when they walk into a hearing where they are accused by administrators, he said, and the consequences of a guilty finding can be severe.
Asking 18 or 19 year olds to defend themselves competently against an array of experts is always going to be an unequal situation, Shibley said. This is really an effort to give a chance to students. Even if they can only afford a lawyer for the couple of hours of the hearing, that could be the difference between the career of their choice and being kicked out of school and having a completely different lifestyle.