Universities using gagging clauses and six-figure payout to cover up serial sexual harassment, MPs told

Universities are using gagging clauses and six figure payouts to cover up serial sexual misconduct by academics, an astrophysicist who accused her boss of harassment has told MPs.

Dr Emma Chapman said that non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)  are “routinely” used to cover up allegations of improper sexual behavior and are even insisted on when students or academics ask for an extension for their research or for help with costs for medical treatment as a result of the trauma.

She argues that confidentiality clauses are “legally unnecessary and damaging to both complainants and wider reform of inadequate internal disciplinary processes”.

Her comments were echoed by legal experts who said that in some instances the accused is told they “can leave quietly” and the allegations suppressed with an NDA, therefore allowing repeat offenders to move from job without the risks being known.

They were giving evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee, which is holding an inquiry into the use of NDAs in the wake of the Telegraph’s revelations about Sir Philip Green’s use of gagging clauses to silence accusations of sexual and racial harassment by staff.

Dr Chapman, who is a member of the 1752 Group which campaigns against sexual misconduct in higher education, warned MPs: “NDAs are routinely used in cases of sexual misconduct in higher education, applied to multiple victims of serial harassers and can total over £100k per harasser.”

She said that although the secretive nature of the agreements meant that exact numbers are hard to pin down, there are at least two cases in London in the last five years where six-figure payouts were made to silence multiple alleged victims of the same harasser.

Dr Chapman complained to her bosses at University College London (UCL) that she was being harassed by a male academic in 2015 and received a payout of £70,000 after a two year legal battle.

She sued the University to remove the confidentiality clause from her settlement after suffering “reputational damage” when she was unable to set the record straight about what had happened.

Dr Chapman, who is now a Royal Society Research Fellow based at Imperial College London, claims she knows of at least seven other people who raised complaints against the same academic.

In her evidence, published on Parliament’s website, she wrote: “NDAs prevent complainants from speaking out about the existence of any disciplinary process, even if the complaint was upheld. Harassers are thus able to claim innocence and, in some cases, deny a process existed, compromising the reputation of the complainant who is unable to defend themselves due to the NDA.”

She called for the UK to follow the lead of California and New York in banning the use of NDAs in cases of sexual assault, harassment or discrimination.

McAllister Olivarius, the law firm which represented Dr Chapman and specialises in discrimination and sexual violence cases, also made submissions to MPs warning that NDAs were being routinely used “out of  habit”.

They said that the “current over-use of NDAs promotes systemic discrimination and harassment, and fails to afford fair and adequate protection to those affected”.

Calling for a reform of the law, the firm added that NDAs “often just serve to prevent the people who know the facts from putting the record of false or confused rumour and conjecture straight.  In these circumstances, sunlight is often the best disinfectant”.

UCL also submitted evidence to the committee, confirming that it no longer routinely uses NDAs and has made a number of proactive changes to combat bullying and sexual harassment.

The University wrote: “The rise of the #MeToo movement has been an international phenomenon. It has made organisations look closely at their culture, preventative action (or lack of) and processes for dealing with issues of sexual misconduct, harassment and bullying. #MeToo has made clear that all institutions can, and must do better, in preventing and addressing bullying and sexual misconduct. UCL is no exception.”

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