'I thought I was going mad'Louis ashworth for varsity

A disabled student has accused their College of withholding mail, accessing their private counselling records, and denying them food and hot water in their attempts to evict them. In court documents seen by Varsity, a PhD student at Sidney Sussex College who lives with severe disabilities alleges the College made their life “as difficult as possible” after they filed a complaint. The student believes this pattern of harassment was intended to force them out. The College also filed an eviction notice – which the student has resisted through legal action.

The hardship the student faced consisted of continued harassment from senior college officials and the Master, University Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Richard Penty. In an email seen by Varsity, the Head Porter, under instruction from the Senior Tutor, requested that the student’s mail be photocopied and returned to sender. This allegedly went on for over a year without the student being informed.

“I thought I was going mad,” they said. “I thought I was incompetent, and that due to my disability I was giving people my wrong address.” They claim that they were fined for late payments, had to appeal parking tickets they had not seen, and lost employment. “It made me feel unsafe in my home,” they said. The student had to involve the police and finally the seizing of their mail ceased.

Sidney Sussex also allegedly attempted to withhold food from the student and deactivated their Camcard until the College apologised in court. They denied them access to the buttery, and when they suffered from Covid-19 in February, they delivered only one meal to their room over the course of three days. They received a pork burger. For religious reasons, they do not eat pork. Three days later, the student was admitted to A&E.

According to a doctor’s note seen by Varsity, the student “is in the extremely vulnerable group in relation to Covid.” The student has a severe immunodeficiency which leaves them susceptible to infections. They are treated with regular blood transfusions, the supplies for which they keep in their fridge at college. The student also has a musculoskeletal problem which has left them with chronic pain syndrome, and causes fatigue.

The student also alleges that the Bursar instructed the College Registrar and IT manager to “access [their] private counselling records and emails” with the college chaplain. In an email seen by Varsity, the chaplain confirmed that his emails had been accessed, but told the student he did not know why. The chaplain then instructed that they email via a secure University system.

The student alleges the action taken by the College was retaliation for the February Varsity article Sidney Shame, which detailed the accessibility issues at Sidney Sussex. The student maintains they were not involved in the publication of said article.

The student submitted a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), an independent regulatory body dealing with data protection, which is ongoing. “This made me feel very unsafe,” they said. “I believe this was part of some misguided attempt to harass and intimidate me, and to gain information for use in litigation.”

Sidney Sussex also issued a formal eviction notice, which the student has successfully resisted. The student took action after he received the notice on 14 July. They secured a successful injunction against the College in the Cambridge County Court on 3 August (03/08), preventing the college from issuing an eviction notice for the next four months.

They allege that after three years in unlawful accommodation, they were given just over a month to find new housing – even though they had already informed Sidney Sussex that they were planning to move out in December.

The student provided the College with their doctor’s notes and letters from the national charity representing immune deficient people. They allege they never received a reply from the College.

Doctors wrote to Sidney Sussex, advising that due to the complexity of the student’s conditions, eviction would cause “serious physical deterioration.” Nonetheless, Sidney Sussex pressed ahead with their eviction. The college alleges that the student has not paid rent in three years, giving the college grounds to evict them. The student, however, claims that they had a verbal agreement with the former bursar that they would not need to pay rent until fundamental maintenance issues were fixed in accordance with the terms of the contract.

They claim the college told them: “okay, don’t worry about it. No more rent until we fix the maintenance issues.” The bursar no longer works at Sidney Sussex.

The student did not receive any demands for payment during this period, and his offers to pay sundry charges were ignored. College policy is to follow up on late bills after two weeks. Two hours after the student filed an Equality Act claim in court in June, they received an eviction notice. The student offered to pay the disputed amount into the College lawyers’ bank account, but this was refused.

At the injunction hearing in August, the court banned the College from issuing an eviction notice, describing the timing as “very unusual.”

The student paid £27,000 – which Sidney Sussex has demanded as rent – as a deposit into the court. If the rent is found not owing, this sum will be returned. During the rent dispute, the student alleges that Sidney’s Master said in June: “if you don’t like it [where you live], leave, you will leave.”

Professor Penty told the court: “I do not recall making the statements that the [student] alleges. In any event, I think it is clear that the College takes the issue of accessibility and its duties under the Equality Act 2010 seriously, and that the College continues to invest in its physical environment and in the improvement of accessibility at the College.”

Although the student was housed in a second floor “accessible room,” maintenance issues meant that the accommodation did not fit their needs. The lack of access to a lift meant they had to “crawl up the stairs.” This “destroyed [their] health,” they said. Although Sidney Sussex maintains that the lift was only broken for 15 months, the student alleges that it was broken for three years.

Their accommodation licence confirms that the college is a signatory to the ‘National Code’ of accommodation providers – which stipulates that if a lift is out of use overnight, the college must house their disabled students in alternative disability accommodation. The student told Varsity that Sidney Sussex refused this.

The student currently has no access to hot water. The sensor for their light is not in their room but in the corridor, meaning the light flashes on and off whenever anyone walks past. Their bathroom floods, and access to hot water has been intermittent. Entrance and exit doors to the College are not accessible. Their ceiling is coated in mould and paint peeled from sewerage. This only added to access issues across Sidney Sussex, one of which resulted in the student dislocating their shoulder and falling down stairs.

An ‘AccessAble’ surveyors report commissioned by the college found £400,000 urgent works would be required to meet the stipulations of the Equality Act. Total works needed would amount to £800,000. Since Professor Penty became Master in 2013 the College has not made a single planning application related to accessibility. In that period, the College has spent £11m on a new kitchen project, which the ‘AccessAble’ report found not to be accessible.


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Access issues at college mean that the student has been searching for accommodation elsewhere. However, as a student, they are required to remain living in Cambridge. Sidney Sussex has said that they will inform the University if the student moves out, or if they evict him, something which the student describes as a “bizarre blackmail”. They also currently have nowhere else to stay. “I have no other home,” they said. “I don’t have much if any in the way of familial support, and I am required to stay in Cambridge as part of my degree.”

The student told Varsity: “I’m happy to pay [the rent] anyway. That’s not really the point, they never asked for rent, they only asked for rent when I complained about access.” Their ideal outcome is that “College provides accessible access for disabled students and treats people with dignity and respect.” They continued: “I just want to finish my PhD, graduate, and then go on and have a life,” but added, “it is simply not right that a College can bully and abuse people, I am not the only one they have done this to, but I am the only one who has stood up to them and they don’t like that.”

In February the student wrote to the Master and Bursar and asked that “College conduct an external investigation,” noting that they had fallen down the fire escape. They had been forced to enter their accommodation via that route for a month. The student was told to hold the handrail.

The student is determined to press ahead with their legal action. “Cambridge is not fit for disabled students and that lack of kindness and respect permeates everywhere,” they told Varsity. “I hope this is a wake-up call.”

Sidney Sussex said: “The College does not consider it appropriate to comment on matters related to individual students.”