Leading Article: Donnellan case offers hard lessons in law

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CAN a woman who is blind drunk consent to sex? This question was at the heart of the case of Austen Donnellan, a third-year student at King's College, London, who was acquitted at the Old Bailey last October of raping a fellow student. The case also raised a less lurid, but equally potent, question: whether universities should try to deal with alleged criminal offences through their own disciplinary procedures, and, if so, how. Universities are not the only institutions that have disciplinary codes. So do schools, companies and the national and local Civil Service; and many other activities, from medicine to City takeovers, are subject to such codes.

After being mauled in the press for its handling of the affair, King's yesterday published an independent report commissioned from a circuit judge. The judge acknowledged that the college's officers did their best to be fair to Mr Donnellan and Miss X, and were not motivated by a fear of adverse publicity. But he made some damning criticisms. The college should not have considered trying a rape case under its own internal rules, he said; and it compounded the fault by allowing the alleged victim to collect statements from witnesses. Worse still, it asked Mr Donnellan to promise to accept the ruling of a King's disciplinary council in return for the woman's undertaking not to go to the police. Such a deal, the judge said, was 'contrary to public policy, unenforceable, and capable of amounting to an attempt to obstruct the course of justice'.

Most people will agree that rape is far too serious to be dealt with by a committee consisting of a chairman, three tutors and two students. But Miss X put the college in a difficult position: she wanted Mr Donnellan drummed out of King's, but not sent to jail - and played on her tutors' heart-strings by saying that it was unfair to call in the police against her will.

If it learns anything from the episode at all, the task force now investigating student discipline will advise other universities to resist such pleas in future. Yet a line must be drawn somewhere. No reasonable business or school will report to the police those who pinch paper-clips, or make the odd illicit private call. But those who are responsible for drawing up and enforcing disciplinary codes should draw a wider moral from the Donnellan case. They will in future have to think harder about what comes under their jurisdiction, and probably report matters to the police more often than now.