Last Sunday, at around 7am, I received a call from an extremely distressed Master’s student.
I was the “on duty” barrister at Alpha Academic Appeals, an organisation that I founded in 2011 aimed at helping university students appeal unjust decisions. The student was crying and had not slept all night.
He explained that, the evening before, he had asked an essay writing company to produce an essay for him. The cost of the service was £750 and the student had paid a deposit of £250. A few hours later, wracked with guilt, he changed his mind and asked to cancel the contract.
The company declined, pointing out that a change of mind was not a valid reason for cancelling the contract. The student continued to ask for his money back and the company warned that its legal department could take “strong actions” against the student, including posting the work online and suing the student for a “serious academic act”.
As the exchange continued, the company noted that the student’s university was nearby and threatened to report a ‘serious academic offense’. It continued to bombard the student with frightening emails about legal action and confusing references to websites in Pakistan and China.
The student became so fearful that he relented and agreed to proceed.
That morning, I drafted an e-mail for him to send to the company. It explained that he had instructed a barrister and set out the relevant provisions of the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 and section 21(1) of the Theft Act 1968 on blackmail.
Minutes later, the reply arrived: “We are processing a legal inquiry against you.” The company obviously disbelieved that the student had instructed a barrister, accused the student of destroying their reputation, and referred again to their right to post data online and take strong actions against the student.
At this point, the student was so distraught that I offered to take over the correspondence with the company. The student wrote a final e-mail to the company saying that the matter was now in the hands of his legal counsel and that all correspondence should be directed to me.
I wrote to the company, expanded on the legal position and concluded that the student owed them nothing at all.
Still the company responded to the student, accusing him of misusing a lawyer’s name and so committing a criminal offence. They included a screenshot of my Wikipedia page. “The case has been reported to the police”, they said.
I adopted a more robust stance and it was only when I asked them for the name of the police force and the police reference number that they realised the game was up. After that, the correspondence stopped.
Although I had read of this sort of behaviour from essay mills, I had not come across it first hand. To a lawyer, it was plain that the company’s arguments were weak and their threats empty, but I was struck by how upset the student was. He was petrified the company would inform the university, although I told him that such an action would make little sense from a reputational point of view. What student would use such a company if this became known?
We Facetimed every couple of hours on Sunday, mainly so I could check he was all right and not in need of emergency medical help. The distress that this sort of conduct can cause students, who may already be vulnerable and driven to the need to use these services, cannot be underestimated. This is especially so in ‘lockdown’ when students may be more socially isolated than usual.
Like many consumers of these essay mills, the client was an international student, far from home, with English as his second language. The solution here was to shield the student by taking over correspondence with the company, show clearly that the student was now legally represented, and argue on legal grounds that the student was not bound by the contract. Once the company realised that this was not a bluff and that their attempts at intimidation would fail, they desisted.
Dr Daniel Sokol is the founder of Alpha Academic Appeals, a barrister and former university lecturer. www.academicappeals.co.uk. The student has given consent to the publication of this article.