Rape case college faces rising criticism: Ability of internal investigation to 'act with justice' is questioned. Rhys Williams reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
KING'S COLLEGE, London, faced mounting criticism last night from the legal profession and higher education bodies for attempting to investigate internally an accusation of rape.

Austen Donnellan, 21, a King's history graduate, was cleared by an Old Bailey jury on Tuesday of raping a fellow student after a drunken Christmas party last year. It emerged in the trial that Mr Donnellan called in the police because he feared he would be sent down without a fair hearing. The college had attempted to reach a deal with Mr Donnellan, whereby if he pleaded guilty to an unspecified lesser charge and left, the original complaint would be withdrawn. Lord Williams of Mostyn QC, last year's chairman of the Bar Council, said: 'Any academic institution has to have internal structures available to its members, but they should not be imposed. They should also retain the basic safeguards available in the criminal justice system . . . Informal procedures . . . have got to be subject to proper rules. The judge's view was that this was not a proper response, particularly bearing in mind the lack of protection for the accused man, who might have had his career ruined.'

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals joined the criticism, saying that the outcome of the trial would serve as a warning to all universities to hand over serious allegations to the police.

King's College yesterday said that 'at all times the college has been concerned to act with justice to all parties'. A statement said it had suggested the woman take the matter to the police, but having sought advice from a solicitor and a counselling group, she insisted the matter be dealt with by the student disciplinary procedures. But in an interview, the woman claimed that when she let the academic authorities deal with her complaint she was acting on college advice. 'They promised me that he would be out of university by January,' she told the Daily Mail.

There is now pressure from within the college for a review of procedures. Under the college's disciplinary code, rape can be dealt with by a committee made up of four dons, two female students and a solicitor. The committee has wide-ranging powers to discipline and expel offending students. Peter Upton, the college solicitor who would act as 'prosecutor', said in court that 'hearsay evidence would almost certainly have to be relied upon'.

Anthony Scrivener QC, another former chairman of the Bar Council, said the case was complex and 'without expert, independent legal advice, it would have been very difficult to handle internally. The idea here that he might have been convicted of rape behind the scenes is hopeless.' He added that the admissibility of hearsay evidence was 'totally wrong'.

Judge Geoffrey Grigson registered concern over the college's conduct of the case. Mr Upton had drawn up a document, to be signed by Mr Donnellan and the woman, that neither would take further legal action. The judge called it an 'extraordinary document in which everyone promises not to go to the police'.

As Mr Donnellan searches for a job as a trainee accountant, attention is switching to his accuser. There have been calls for her to be identified. One person close to her said she felt 'hard done by' and 'devastated' by the verdict but plans to return to King's next week to continue studying for her finals next summer.