In 2011, the US Department of Education’s assistant for civil rights, Russlynn H Ali, wrote to universities across America instructing them that they must aggressively investigate all allegations of sexual assault on campus, regardless of whether the police chose to do so.
The directive, now infamously referred to as the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, stated that if university disciplinary procedures failed to pursue allegations of sexual assault, they would be in violation of US equality legislation and would be stripped of government funds.
The directive, fuelled by a popular panic around an alleged ‘rape culture’ on campus, triggered a proliferation of a Kafkaesque tribunals and kangaroo courts across US universities. Four years on, dozens of railroaded male students are suing their Alma Maters for breaching their constitutional right to a fair trial, and in October last year, 28 Harvard Law professors published an open letter stating that the new procedures, ‘lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process [and] are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused’.
So far, so American. Except, astonishingly, there is now a drive to impose this discredited system of parallel justice on to campuses in the UK. This year, the End Violence Against Women commission (EVAW) – which includes the Fawcett Society, Rape Crisis England and Wales, the Women’s Institute, Amnesty International UK and the TUC – has published a legal briefing warning universities they could be breaking the law if they refuse to investigate sexual-assault allegations in the belief that such investigations should be left to the police.
Their argument is essentially the same as the one in the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter – that because under equality law universities have a responsibility to protect students and staff from gender-based discrimination, they are required to investigate such allegations, even if the evidence would not support a criminal investigation. Or, as the EVAW briefing puts it, ‘disciplinary procedures should not apply a criminal burden of proof’.