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NC fine-tunes student lawyer policy

Although the law allowing students to hire attorneys in student conduct cases passed more than four months ago, its implications on fairness in student-versus-student cases are still not clear.

The Students and Administration Equality Act was signed into law this summer, and allows students in student conduct cases to hire an attorney or non-attorney advocate, except in situations involving academic dishonesty or the Honor Court.

“The whole intent of the legislation is to put a student or a student organization on the same playing field as the university,” said Rep. John Bell, R-Craven, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, adding that the goal was to let the students keep their rights and due process.

The UNC-system General Administration immediately adopted guidelines for campuses, saying that students can hire attorneys at their own expense.

But in cases where both defendant and complainant are students, there is a possibility that only one side could procure legal representation.

“It is a potential issue where one student has representation but the other does not,” said Thomas Shanahan, vice president and general counsel for the system.

UNC-system campuses adjusted their policies to match the legislation, with most, if not all, administrations using primary evaluations throughout the summer to ease the transition.

Christi Hurt, interim Title IX coordinator at UNC-CH, said in an email that the University is looking at the law and system’s recommendations.

“We will also be taking into consideration how we can best provide a fair and impartial process that protects the rights of all parties,” she said in an email.

UNC-Charlotte has no plans to provide an attorney or non-attorney representative for students in a student-versus-student case.

Vicki McNeil, associate vice chancellor for student affairs at UNC-C, said she’s not concerned about the fairness of such cases where one can’t afford an attorney because the panel is trained to weigh the parties’ stances equally.

“(The panel’s job is) making sure the attorney doesn’t control the panel and case,” she said.

The panel chair will also be in full control of the proceeding and will pose the questions.

UNC-C had two student conduct hearings this semester, and in cases where the respondent faced suspension, the student declined to use their right to an attorney, McNeil said. And Shanahan said student-versus-student cases are rare.

If a campus decides to allow attorney appointments, it will have to raise the funds, he said.

“The campuses don’t have money budgeted to allow lawyers to be appointed to students,” he said.

System campuses might still readjust their policies — McNeil said UNC-C is continuing to evaluate its rules.

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