Ultra Vires


Accommodation policy: greater transparency a step in the right direction

Daniel Carens-Nedelsky (2L)

In response to growing student discontent with the Faculty of Law’s approach to accommodation, and a critical report produced by two recent graduates, the administration has introduced a written accommodation policy for the first time, which contains revisions to the previously unwritten policy.

Marcus McCann, co-author of the report with Krista Nerland, said it was encouraging to see this response from the administration. He believes that, whatever one’s opinions are on its substance, having the policy written down and easily accessible is a necessary first step to having an informed discussion about it. Moreover, he noted that the mere existence of written policies might reduce stress around accommodation. A common theme in the report was students’ anxiety over not knowing what was required of them by the process.

While there is lot to unpack about the policy, four key points are worth noting.

  1. Accommodations are extraordinary

For the first time, there is a clear rationale behind the Faculty’s accommodation policy, “to provide reasonable accommodations to students who face serious exigent circumstances that are beyond the student’s ability to anticipate or control.”

The policy document continues, “In the interest of fairness and equity to all students, accommodations are considered to be an extraordinary measure.” This is a dramatic statement. It suggests students should presume at least moderate antagonism towards any accommodation request.

  1. Written documentation always required

With a narrow exception for deferred exams due to religious holidays, accommodation requests require written documentation. Furthermore, if you request a deferral for medical reasons, the relevant physician must fill out the specific form from the accommodations webpage; a general note will not suffice.

The policy also requires that the “medical documentation must establish that the student was examined and diagnosed at the time of illness, not after the fact.” This suggests, for example, that a general note from a psychiatrist stating that a student requires accommodation for depression is insufficient. It looks likely that a student will need a note connecting depression with the need for accommodation each and every time.

  1. Appeals

There is now a clear appeals process. This may benefit students who feel they have been unfairly treated at the first instance. Students appeal directly to the “Appeal Committee of the Faculty of Law,” whose mandate is to “ensure the policies, regulations and standards of the Faculty and the University have been applied fairly and reasonably in the circumstances of the appeal.”

Of course, having recourse to an appeals committee will not necessarily improve students’ access to accommodation. This is because, at the end of the day, it is still applying the “extraordinary circumstances” policy.

  1. Continued importance of Accessibility Services

Considering the Faculty’s focus only on “extraordinary” circumstances, the fourth general principle in the policy is important: “[t]his policy does not displace any accommodations assessed and deemed necessary by Accessibility Services at the University of Toronto.” Accommodations required by Accessibility Services trump—or at least supplement—the Faculty of Law’s policies.

With this in mind, it is worth paying attention to the advice provided by students in McCann and Nerland’s report: “[g]o to Accessibility Services or CAPS [Counselling and Psychological Services] right away; don’t wait for Faculty process to fail.”


The Students’ Law Society’s (SLS) Vice President, Student Affairs and Governance, Padraigin Murphy—who was also last year’s Equity Officer—shared her views on the new policies. Like McCann, she expressed tempered optimism, and was quick to note that the policies clearly respond to student concerns regarding the prior lack of transparency.

Murphy envisions the SLS’s current role as one of observation. This entails getting a sense of student responses to the new policies and, most importantly, carefully observing how the policies are actually implemented.

It is clear both McCann and Murphy saw potential for improvement. Murphy noted that the administration’s concerns over fairness seem to stem from the Faculty’s competitive grading system. She noted that “the school’s stance is very understandable,” adding “but I do think it would serve us all to think critically about it—we might even ask, when looking through a pedagogical or academic lens, whether it is best for students and the community to come at it that way.”

McCann was more critical of the policies themselves. He noted that the administration’s idea of fairness ran against that which he encountered when interviewing students. His understanding of students’ feelings is the belief that “a generous accommodations policy doesn’t demean other student’s hard work.” Adopting this approach may lead to many other changes suggested in the report, he said.


A useful frame for thinking about the issue may be the concepts of formal and substantive equality. In many ways, the current policies express the idea of formal equality. Fairness means treating everyone the same as much as possible. McCann, on the other hand, prefers a policy informed by substantive equality, the idea that often fairness is achieved by treating people differently in accordance with their needs. Any accommodation policy will necessarily contain elements of both, but one’s perspective on the new policies will likely be influenced by the relative importance one assigns to each viewpoint.

While there is room for debate about the content of the policies, it is clear that having them written down is an important step. It will help students navigate the process, give critics something tangible to critique, and allow the SLS to more directly monitor whether policies are being applied fairly and consistently.

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