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September 3, 2020

$420,000 student “hazing” payout puts Universities on notice

A former law student of the Australian National University was recently awarded damages of $420,000 by the ACT Supreme Court (‘John’s Case’) after having been left in an intoxicated state and then sexually assaulted.

The student was a resident at John XXIII College at the university.

The Court heard that the former student was sexually assaulted in an alleyway by a fellow college resident in 2015 after participating in a hazing ritual known as ‘pub golf’. It was alleged that the ritual involved residents taping bottles of alcohol to the student’s hands and forcibly making her drink enough alcohol to ‘make par’.

The Court held that the university had breached the duty of care it owed to the student after it directed the student and other residents to leave the premises, rather than assisting them, when discovered by university staff. It also found that the student was a “foreseeably vulnerable” person when she left the premises in an intoxicated state, and that her sexual assault was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of this breach of duty.

Hazing rituals an unacceptable college tradition

Behind the walls of Australia’s elite university residential colleges lies a dark culture of ‘hazing’ rituals and damaging college traditions, hidden in plain sight under the guise of party and drinking culture. Instigated by older students, hazing rituals pressure younger students into binge drinking.

In a 2017 Australian Human Rights Commission report (‘AHRC Report’), one college was found to have held an event entitled ‘feral women’s night’, where first-year female students were force fed alcohol, told to remove their tops and serve older male college residents while being subjected to derogatory comments and chants.

Other commonly referenced ritualised methods include the use of physical violence, sleep deprivation and in some cases, sexual assault.

These rituals are dangerous as they take advantage of young and naïve students who having left home for the first time are unaccustomed to the relative freedom of residential colleges. They are vulnerable to manipulation and peer pressure. They often feel the need to conform to university drinking culture. As such, the need to ‘step up’ and fill a stereotype of university drinking culture is less of a choice and more of a forced societal expectation.

This isn’t the first time that university college hazing traditions have caused significant concern in the community, with the AHRC Report identifying university colleges as key locations where sexual assault is highly prevalent.

University responses to these allegations have been notably poor to date. This was further demonstrated in John’s Case, whereby the College’s former head Geoff Johnston, made outrageous comments following the student’s disclosure of the assault, including that “sometimes when boys are drunk, they can be quite arrogant but are often under-performers”, and “I’m not even sure that anything did happen in the alleyway”.

Following the outcome of this case, it is clear that the Courts expect universities to equally satisfy their pastoral duty to students, as well as their general duty of care, in the disclosure of allegations of misconduct.

Calls for the criminalisation of hazing

While Victoria is yet to criminalise ‘hazing’ as a standalone offence, Johns Case provides renewed hope for survivors of these experiences. It is also a powerful message to universities to ensure they comply with the newly broadened scope of their duty of care owed to their students, and in particular those who reside on campus.

How we can help

RCT recognises the unique challenges that students may be faced with when trying to make sense of a traumatic experience or assault they have suffered in connection with their university or tertiary provider.

In our experience, feelings of shame and confusion often prevent survivors from taking action sometimes years – or even decades – later. We want you to know that we hear you and believe you.

We act for our clients on a ‘No win No fee OR expenses’ basis and are driven by a trauma informed approach. We are always prepared to engage with our clients, to explain the process and to find a way to a settlement that suits their needs.

Survivors of abuse are welcome to contact our office on 03 9238 7878 for a sensitive, confidential and free of charge discussion about what your legal options may be.