A new law, signed into legislation in late August, will offer UNC-System students and student organizations the right to hire an attorney to represent them in student misconduct cases.
This new legislation applies to strictly non-academic violations, including plagiarism and cases of sexual assault. It does not apply to student honor courts, such as the student honor system at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told the News & Observer that this reform helped protect students’ legal rights.
“Many North Carolinians and Americans generally don’t 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 told the N&O. “So, I think it’s common sense reform.”
While students have been able to seek out legal guidance and resources, it has never been possible to have a third party speak on a student’s behalf. University court cases function differently from standard court cases. For example, university discipline can decide verdicts on a case-by-case basis and certain legal liberties are not applicable to campus misconduct, including double jeopardy. One key uncertainty of the new law is whether the presence of a third party will influence the current system. Of particular concern is UNC-CH, which is currently overhauling its policies regarding sexual assault. Because this legislation does not require universities to provide attorneys, students must pay for the services out of pocket. Andrea Pino, a UNC-CH student and one of five women who filed the federal complaint against the university, told the N&O she is concerned about the strain this new law will add to her financial situation.
“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 to the N&O. “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.”
Cody Long, a freshman in history, said that while the law is “ a step in the right direction, the University should be obligated to appoint an attorney to students who cannot afford one.”