A law firm says some students currently locked-down at Manchester Metropolitan University halls of residence ‘may be entitled to claim damages for false imprisonment’.
And they claim to have evidence, including recordings, of accommodation staff and security ‘enforcing’ the lockdown.
Solicitors said they were now acting for nine students currently in quarantine at the Birley campus and Cambridge Halls.
The law firm, Levins Solicitors, has written to Manchester city council’s legal department to seek ‘clarity’ about the situation – a letter they have posted on Twitter.
Police, Manchester city council and MMU confirmed on Sunday night there is no legal enforcement of the lockdown, but students are being asked to ‘do the right thing’ and self-isolate.
MMU said: “We are unable to prevent our students from leaving the halls, but our students are bright young adults and we trust that they will do the right thing.”
That statement followed concerns voiced by legal commentators.
On Monday, the university said students would be given financial compensation of more than a week’s rent.
There have been 137 positive cases in a matter of weeks linked to the campuses, leading to around 1,500 students being told not to leave their halls for two weeks, unless it’s an emergency.
The law firm, in the letter, said students were contacted ‘with no advance notice’, told they ‘must remain in their residence and self-isolate’ and ‘must not leave their accommodation’.
“MMU has at all times suggested it has acted with your [the council’s] agreement, and with your guidance,” said the letter.
“MMU has further noted if residents were to leave their accommodation, they ‘would be breaking the law’.”
That references a Tweet the university posted in response to a concerned mum on Twitter.
The letter went on: “Lastly, our clients have instructed us that the restrictions described above have been enforced by accommodation staff and security. We have seen evidence, including in the form of recordings, to this effect.”
The law firm said in the letter the clarification over legal enforcement came ‘despite the clear and consistent use of mandatory language’ and ‘the practical experience enforcement experienced by our clients’.
They said the notice from the council announcing the lockdown measures, made on Friday September 25 and published on the council’s website, appeared, in their view, to be a direction under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 3) Regulations.
The law firm said it was concerned the council had ‘sought to enforce’ or ‘implement a local lockdown without relying on the regulations by publishing mandatory language on your website with the veneer of enforceability’.
“This would be an unacceptable use of the council’s authority and its position,” the letter added.
Jon Heath, a partner at Levins, told the Manchester Evening News the firm agreed to act for students free of charge because ‘we were concerned to learn that they were being detained in halls with no apparent legal authority’.
“We are pleased that the council and MMU eventually confirmed that the ‘lockdown’ was not legally enforceable, but we are still concerned to establish how it was that students were so fundamentally misled about their legal rights and whether they risk disciplinary sanction from MMU if they leave,” he said.
“Some students may be entitled to claim damages for false imprisonment.
“That is not why we got involved – we were only concerned to see that the unlawful detention ended – but we will advise our clients in broad terms about the possibility of claiming damages and suggest other firms who may be able to help should they wish to pursue claims for damages. We have recently heard that MMU is planning to offer compensation to the affected students and that is a welcome development.
“It may be that a lockdown is justified on public health grounds, but it is vitally important that public bodies make a clear distinction between advice on the one hand and legal obligations on the other.
“The council has the power to impose legal restrictions on who can enter and leave premises, but the legislation contains numerous safeguards to protect the liberties of those affected.
“If the authorities wish to impose a legally-binding lockdown, they must do it by showing that the requirements of the legislation are met, and not by misleading students into believing that guidance is mandatory.”
MMU declined to comment.
A spokesperson for Manchester City Council said: “We will respond fully to the Levin’s letter in due course but under national guidance, confirmed cases and contacts are already required to self-isolate and within Manchester different households are not allowed to mix.
“In the main, we have reinforced these existing measures which all Manchester students should already be complying with.
“The Outbreak Control Team’s recommendation for additional measures at MMU halls, over and above this, is consistent with the wider approach taken to Covid-19 containment and outbreak management we have taken in Manchester.
“An example of this in a similar closed setting is the approach taken in care homes when residents are asked to self-isolate in their rooms during outbreaks and homes are closed to new admissions and visitors.”