College 'made errors in rape case': King's rules were probably flawed in principle, inquiry finds. Simon Midgley reports

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AN INQUIRY into student disciplinary procedures concluded yesterday that King's College, London, made several serious errors in its handling of the Austen Donnellan date-rape case and that its rules were probably flawed in principle.

In December 1992, a 20-year-old female undergraduate accused Mr Donnellan, a fellow final-year student who was also 20 at the time, of raping her in a college hall of residence after a drunken Christmas party. On the night of the alleged incident, Miss X had drunk what one witness described as a 'lethal cocktail' of cider, vodka and Drambuie. Mr Donnellan denied the charge and said that Miss X had consented to sexual intercourse.

Miss X insisted that the matter should be considered by an internal college disciplinary committee but Mr Donnellan eventually reported the case to the police because he felt that the charge was too serious and that he lacked confidence in the disciplinary committee's ability to try it. In October last year, an Old Bailey jury unanimously found Mr Donnellan not guilty.

However, the college was criticised in the press for allegedly prejudging Mr Donnellan's guilt; trying to stage a cover-up to protect its reputation; proposing a backroom plea-bargaining deal; and supposedly assuring Miss X that Mr Donnellan would be out of the college in a few weeks.

Yesterday the report of the inquiry by Judge Marcus Edwards concluded that the alleged offence was so serious that the college should have taken independent legal advice and promptly referred the matter to the police.

The regulations governing student discipline do not say what the college should do where the allegation of misconduct amounts to an allegation of a serious offence. That was 'probably' a flaw in principle.

The report is also critical of the college for allowing Miss X to collect her own statements from witnesses for the internal hearing. A legal agreement drawn up by the college solicitor which would have made Mr Donnellan promise not to go to the police was 'an extraordinary document' but was a bona fide attempt to meet the wishes of all parties and prevent Mr Donnellan suffering the 'double jeopardy' of a criminal and civil trial.

'In no circumstances should an agreement be made not to go to the police about a matter.'

The judge found that the college had acted upon the presumption that Mr Donnellan was innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. He also concluded that 'there was no improper conduct in regard to plea-bargaining or improper threats or inducements or attempts at 'back-room deals' '. The idea of a 'lesser charge' was discussed but not pursued.

He was satisfied that there had been no intention to 'cover up', or to protect the college's reputation. The college had repeatedly tried to persuade Miss X to report the offence to the police but she had insisted on it being heard internally.

Miss X, the judge said, was not, contrary to a report in the Daily Mail, 'informally assured that whatever happened Mr Donnellan would be out of the college in a few weeks'. She was told that if he admitted or was found guilty of the attack he would be disciplined and the likely, although not certain, outcome would be expulsion. The judge concluded: 'Mistakes were made, some of them serious, but not through lack of commitment.'

The college will revise its disciplinary procedures in the light of the report and of the findings of a task force set up by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to prepare guidelines for student disciplinary matters in universities.

Leading article, page 17

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