Law gives students right to attorney
Legal representatives can play a greater role in some disciplinary hearings.
Students will no longer have to stand alone in campus courts.
Under a new law, intended to level the playing field for students on trial in UNC-system campus courts, students are guaranteed the right to a representative in non-academic trials.
North Carolina is the first state to guarantee students’ right to an attorney in campus courts. The Students and Administration Equality Act, which Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law Aug. 23, does not apply to trials run by an entirely student staff.
Under the law, students facing most non-criminal charges — such as academic dishonesty — are not entitled to a representative. Those students may still rely on an attorney for advice, as has traditionally been allowed.
The UNC system lobbied against this bill, said Drew Moretz, a UNC-system lobbyist.
Under the new law, students involved in cases of sexual assault are entitled to a representative due to sexual assault cases falling under the jurisdiction of the Student Grievance Committee, which is composed of students, faculty and staff.
There are some details in the language of the law, however, that require further interpretation, said Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Winston Crisp.
The law states attorneys may fully participate in non-academic disciplinary hearings that fall under the guidelines specified by the law.
“‘Fully participate’ doesn’t necessarily mean you get to come in and do whatever you want,” said Crisp of the powers afforded to the newly accessible representatives.
Questions about equity
Crisp said another potential issue could arise if two students face each other in a campus discipline case, but only one of the parties can afford or access legal representation.
Students from lower-income backgrounds could face difficulty in affording a representative to provide support, he said.
Under Title IX, UNC-CH is obligated to provide equity in student-on-student issues, which compels the University to provide legal representation to students who might not be able to afford a lawyer, Moretz said.
Meanwhile, the bill lacks any funding provisions to support that, he said.
But Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the bill could help students from disadvantaged backgrounds because they might have less experience with legal jargon and procedures, leaving them unprepared to represent themselves in a courtroom setting.
“Being able to have a lawyer for the couple hours of a hearing could make the difference between (a student) finishing their college career and having a successful lifetime career, and being kicked out of college basically due to a lack of following procedures or other kinds of unfair findings against them,” Shibley said.
Adjusting to the law
Rep. John Bell, R-Craven, said he was not surprised by the bipartisan support that pushed the bill through the N.C. House of Representatives with only one dissenting vote.
“It was time that students had the right to at least have a lawyer or a parent or even an adviser present to prevent them from self-incrimination, but also to enforce the rules for them,” said Bell, a primary sponsor of the bill.
But Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls said he is uncertain if attorneys will adapt to campus court procedures.
Sauls said he expects students charged with drug possession, impaired driving and other non-academic, criminal issues to be the main beneficiaries of the new legislation.
UNC-CH will ensure that its policies comply with the new law and that information to educate students facing charges will be made available to them and their representatives, he said.
Sauls said he was concerned about the law because University trials operate differently from traditional criminal trials. He said the law could put students at a disadvantage if their representatives are not accustomed to the University’s unique trial procedures.
Sauls and Moretz said disciplinary procedures on campuses are intended to be educational rather than punitive — something that could be hindered by introducing professionals into the process.
“I think it’s always important to point out that a campus disciplinary procedure, particularly the Honor System, is not a corollary for the criminal justice process,” Sauls said.
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