From My Perspective – Counsellor Liability

A recent ruling by an Alberta court has school counsellors worried, with good reason. Heather Crerar, a former Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC) student, was awarded a judgement of more than $21,000 because the college counsellor wrongly advised her on what courses she needed to take.

Crerar was hoping to transfer to the University of Lethbridge, but even though her grade point average was 3.9 at GPRC, U of L would not accept her until she put in an extra semester, including two sessions of summer school, in order to complete required courses.

In his ruling, the Judge found that GRPC had “breached its duty of care to provide her with good advice.” He further stated that since GPRC student information material tells students to go to college advisors for help, students can reasonably be expected to rely on the advice given. The college is considering an appeal.

The acting president of GPRC, Jean Madill, expressed concern with the notion that college counsellors could be held responsible for giving advice in spite of having based this on the best information available to them. This information comes from other post-secondary institutions, and Madill noted that ultimately it was up to the individual student to confirm transfer requirements for the institution they wish to attend.

Christine McAvoy, Crerar’s lawyer, argued that her client had received a “string of bad advice” and that although she had filed an academic grievance with the college, her appeal failed, leading her to take the case to court. McAvoy compared college counsellors to lawyers and accountants, who, according to McAvoy, “are responsible for their advice.”

This bothers me on several levels. I don’t think I’ll even touch the notion that lawyers and accountants take responsibility for their advice – I’ve not seen consistent evidence of that. Certainly counsellors are in a position where they are expected to take responsibility for the advice they offer. But there are limits. Advice, when it comes down to it, is another person’s opinion. If I were a student seeking to transfer into a university, I would be inclined to ensure for myself that I had the required courses, rather than relying on the advice of another person, regardless of how knowledgeable.

Perhaps it was reasonable for this student to assume that she was acting on the best advice and did not need to check for herself. But a mistake is costly, both in terms of tuition, and in time spent needlessly on courses that cannot be transferred. Would this not be enough motivation to take responsibility for finding out for yourself if you have the right courses? Personal responsibility seems to be something too few people are willing to take, instead expecting that others will make their choices for them and then bear the blame.

However, GPRC college materials did suggest that their counselling service would be an appropriate source of advice on course selections. Is it the fault of the college and the counsellor? You might make the argument that a school or career counsellor should bear a greater responsibility for the advice they give – since their profession is one of advice-giving. Yet counsellors, by the nature of their profession, are already in a difficult position. I know myself that I’m always very conscious of the advice I give my clients, in case somehow it does not turn out well for them. It’s a huge responsibility to be helping people make major life decisions.

Choices individuals make do not always turn out well, regardless of the advice they may or may not receive. Often they hear one thing and do another, and just as often they hear advice quite different from that actually given, interpreting what has been said to fit what they want to hear. The notion that clients will be coming back and laying blame when things go wrong is quite alarming.

I also have to wonder if, as the president claims, the counsellors were acting on the best advice they had received from University of Lethbridge and the Alberta Transfer Guide – how much more could they do? If blame is to be laid, I wonder why no one looked at the information that was being used. Did the University of Lethbridge provide faulty information to GPRC? Or was the advice based on the Alberta Transfer Guide?

The Alberta Transfer Guide is an excellent resource, one that lists all compatible courses that can be transferred from college to university and vice versa. However, I’ve heard countless examples of courses that are listed as transferable, but the reality is quite different. I know of at least one student who attempted to transfer an Athabasca University computing course into another university, and this was refused, in spite of being in the Guide as transferable.

I’ve heard similar stories about grade point averages. Crerar had a 3.9 on the GPRC scale, but this apparently was not enough for Lethbridge – and it is not uncommon to hear that other universities downgrade marks from transfer colleges. So it is quite possible that the counsellors at GPRC acted on the best advice they themselves had when advising Crerar.

Perhaps I’m feeling sympathetic towards the counsellor because that is the field I am in. I’m sensitive to the idea that any advice offered might come back to haunt me, and I worry about the increasing tendency for people to shift responsibility onto others with lawsuits when things don’t go as planned.

I’m sympathetic for the student, too. It’s discouraging (and expensive) to work hard on courses, only to find out that they are the wrong ones and cannot be used in your program as planned. There is a level of trust involved, and as a student you often don’t know where to begin with the course planning process – so you need to be able to depend on the advice you receive.

I will be watching with interest to see what happens with this court decision if the college does appeal. At the very least, its an important lesson in caution. College counsellors do need to be careful about the advice they provide. But students should be encouraged, if not strongly urged, to investigate things for themselves. Entrance requirements change, and each institution has their own standards, with no obligation to conform to those of any other college or university. Life as a student is difficult enough, and none of us need to be wasting time and money taking courses we don’t need.


College may appeal student’s court victory: Counsellors fear liability if advice is wrong. Duncan Thorne, staff writer, Edmonton Journal, March 2, 2004.

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.

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