University of Auckland student launches legal action over enrolment termination after suicide attempt

The student's lawyers say she should be allowed to finish her studies.
The student's lawyers say she should be allowed to finish her studies. Photo credit: Getty

Lawyers representing an international student whose enrolment at the University of Auckland was terminated after she faced mental health issues are fighting for her to keep her place. 

The young woman from China had her entitlement to study revoked in December, four years into her double degree, after attempting to take her own life. 

She was notified that failing to advise the university of a change in her mental health state cost her position, with the education faculty arguing she was contractually obligated to do so. 

But lawyers representing the young woman are calling the university's decision "invalid", saying a clause in the woman's contract with the university forcing her to disclose any change in her mental health situation "stretches on the boundaries of credulity".

"The very fact that a person suffers from mental health issues makes it difficult, if not impossible, for that person to disclose those issues as contemplated by the agreement," lawyers Daniel Nilsson and Tracey Hu wrote in a letter to the university.

The student arrived in New Zealand in April 2015 when she was 16 and was studying towards science and health science degrees.  

She had one year left to complete when her enrolment was terminated due to worsening conditions in her mental health. The student told Newshub that her mental health troubles began when she met a man who lured her into sex.

Due to a feeling of shame about the incident, she said she did not tell the university about her troubles, despite signing the agreement to inform them of such changes in her mental health situation. 

"It was quite bad as I always living in an unsafe environment. I attempted suicide many times, just wanting the abuse to finish," she said.

The situation worsened in October, when the student was allegedly raped by another patient while staying in a mental health unit. Following that incident, she made a serious attempt to take her own life, which the university was notified of.

Just days before Christmas, a letter from the university's deputy vice-chancellor Adrienne Cleland informed her she could no longer continue with her studies.

"It is clear that there has been a change to the state of your mental health ... and you did not promptly inform the International Office as you were required to do under your Enrolment Conditions," it said. 

"The University has cancelled your Student Agreement for your breach of enrolment conditions, thereby terminating your enrolment."

The student's lawyers said: "The reliance on a strict interpretation of the disclosure clause in circumstances where the university has at all times had (and relied on) direct access to [the student's] health records verges on absurdity".

Her legal team has also taken issue with the fact that the agreement "provides no guidance as to what constitutes a 'change', nor any definition of 'mental health'."

"The provision is excessively broad and intrusive. It ignores the reality that mental health issues may make disclosing personal information difficult.

"In addition, forced disclosure of deeply personal information may have a negative impact on a student's mental health during difficult periods."

The lawyers requested a response to the letter by Friday February 14. 

They are seeking for the student's enrolment to be "immediately reinstated, to allow her to recommence at the start of semester 1, 2020".

The student's mother is now in the country to provide support "for the foreseeable future", and a treating clinician has also been found to assist her, the lawyers said in the letter.

The university said for privacy reasons it would not comment on the specific allegations but confirmed it had been in touch with the student's lawyers by February 14 and was "currently corresponding" with them.

"We can confirm that student health and wellbeing is a priority for us, and that we are committed to supporting students who attend the university," a spokesperson said. 

In a previous statement, the university said the decision to terminate the student's enrolment "was not taken lightly" and it was "absolutely confident that this student has been extensively supported and treated with care and compassion for the four years of her enrolment here".

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