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Each free speech case ‘could cost universities £180k’

Legal bills and damages could mean astronomical bills for UK universities and students unions

Each claim brought against a university or student union under proposed free speech legislation could set the institution back more than £180,000 in legal costs and non-pecuniary losses, MPs have heard.

Speaking in a debate on the Free Speech (Higher Education) bill, which is currently making its way through parliament, shadow universities minister Matt Western warned that a tort giving individuals the right to sue universities if they believe they have been no-platformed could be incredibly costly for providers.

Western (pictured) said that if existing cost guidelines used in discrimination cases are followed when the bill becomes law, the value of losses could rise as high as £181,200.

“It is worth flagging that, if the courts were to follow such guidelines, the most egregious cases of non-pecuniary loss arising from a breach of a freedom of speech duty could cost a student union or university up to £56,200 per individual claim, in addition to any further litigation costs, which I am reliably informed range from £75,000 to £125,000,” he said on 2 May.

Western said that MPs should consider, in the context of their local higher education providers, how such costs “may detract from the student experience, given the financial pressures across the entire sector”.

“Such monies would be better used to support hardship funding and welfare support, given the rocketing number of mental health cases they are seeing,” he said.

In response, Claire Coutinho, the Department for Education junior minister with responsibility for free speech in education, said the coast of litigation brought under the tort established by the bill was “a matter for the courts”.

“If universities would like not to have to spend money on redress, they should simply uphold freedom of speech,” she said. “Should not the staff and student experience of university be one in which they are exposed to different views and can speak freely and debate controversial ideas? Is that not fundamental? That is exactly what the bill is trying to uphold.”

Elsewhere in the debate, Western questioned the need for a free speech bill at all, and observed that it had now been almost two years since the proposed legislation received its first reading.

“Heavy-handed legislative responses to largely exaggerated social problems—I am not saying there are no problems—appear to be this government’s general modus operandi,” he said.