Universities are often challenged by the need to accommodate
students with medical conditions. However, the balance between
maintaining legitimate academic standards and treating a student
fairly by accommodating for medical conditions is sometimes hard to
In Singh v. University of British Columbia, 2012 CanLII
691 (SCC), a case involving an anxiety disorder and a student's
persistent inability to maintain the requisite academic standards,
the Supreme Court of Canada recently dismissed with costs an
application for leave to appeal from a decision of the British
Columbia Court of Appeal. The University purportedly failed to
provide procedural justice to a student who had a history of
failing her courses. As the case demonstrates, however, a well
publicized accommodation policy, and an Access and Diversity Office
dedicated to such issues, provided the university with the basis
for defeating accusations of a failure to accommodate.
Ms. Priya Singh enrolled in the University of British
Columbia's Diploma in Accounting Program (DAP), after having
received an undergraduate degree from the university. On probation
in the DAP, she was required to maintain a 65% average in her first
two terms. Unfortunately, she fell well short of the 65% benchmark
in her first five courses, failing all except one, even after two
examination re writes – only one of which was formally
authorized by the university.
Her appeal to the Appeals Committee accused the university of a
failure to accommodate her, and requested that she be given an
opportunity to re write all of her failed exams or be accorded
retroactive withdrawal from the courses. She provided medical
evidence of an anxiety disorder related to the taking of exams
unless her panic attacks could be effectively treated.
Under its usual procedure in medical disability cases, the
matter was referred to the Access and Diversity Office
("ADO") for assessment. The ADO supported Ms. Singh's
application for retroactive withdrawal from three of the courses,
stating that she had provided documentation establishing "a
picture of a student in difficulty". It noted that she did not
realize the extent of the impact of her disability until after she
had failed, then sought more intensive help. However, it
recommended that the failing grade in the fourth course stand, as
she had been provided with accommodation to sit the exam for that
course, but did not write it. Instead, in spite of well publicized
university rules regarding exam accommodation, she chose to write
the exam on an alternate date, absent university authorization.
Dissatisfied with the ADO's recommendation, Ms Singh asked
for a modification of the ADO's assessment regarding the fourth
course. The ADO did not change its recommendation.
In oral submissions before the Appeals Committee, Ms. Singh
expanded her claim for relief, requesting that all of her 19 failed
grades at the university, including her undergraduate record, be
The Appeals Committee accepted the recommendations of the ADO,
and refused Ms. Singh's expanded claims for relief. Ms. Singh
applied for judicial review on the basis of a failure of procedural
On judicial review, the chambers judge confirmed the decision of
the Appeals Committee. The chambers judge found no evidence of a
failure of procedural fairness, as the ADO was not prohibited from
changing its recommendation – it had just chosen not
On further appeal to the Court of Appeal, deference was paid to
the judgment of the Appeals Committee, and its decision was found
not to have been unreasonable. The Supreme Court of Canada refused
Ms. Singh's application for leave to appeal.
As was borne out in the ultimate decision of the Supreme Court,
the University's assessment and review, while adhering to
academic criteria set out for Ms. Singh, had navigated a reasonable
balance between accommodation and upholding academic standards.
Unfortunately for Ms. Singh, she persisted with her excessive
demands through several appeals and ultimately had costs awarded
The foregoing provides only an overview. Readers are
cautioned against making any decisions based on this material
alone. Rather, a qualified lawyer should be consulted.
In a policy statement released early last month, the Ontario Human Rights Commission clarified its position on the scope of medical documentation that employees need to provide when making disability-related accommodation requests.
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