Investigation launched into Union president’s alleged rule breach

A Senior Disciplinary Committee will investigate a decision by Union president Chris Zabilowicz to allow two unelected members to join the Union's Standing Committee

Union President Chris Zabilowicz at a debate. Photo: Oxford Union/Facebook.

A formal investigation has been launched into the allegedly illegitimate decision by Oxford Union President Chris Zabilowicz to expand the Union’s Standing Committee.

A Senior Disciplinary Committee (SDC) – the Union’s second-highest disciplinary body – is to be convened within the next several weeks to investigate claims that Zabilowicz breached Union rules by allowing two unelected members to be appointed to senior committee positions.

Due to changes brought in under the presidency of Michael Li, the Standing Committee was set to increase from five to seven members, with an amendment stipulating that the new rule would take effect following the Michaelmas Term 2017 elections.

After becoming President, Zabilowicz passed an interpretative ruling bringing forward the expansion to the close of Trinity term, which allowed Kaleem Hawa and Grace Joel to be appointed to the committee, the latter of whom had previously failed in her attempt to be elected.

In an official notice issued at the time justifying the decision Zabilowicz stated: “Although the second schedule states that the first election affected will be that in Michaelmas Term 2017, it also states that the Rules change shall ‘take effect immediately’… I have therefore decided to issue a binding Ruling that this Rules change is now in effect… There should now be seven Elected members of the Standing Committee.”

A subsequent notice calling for applicants for the position was displayed on the Union board during 9th Week of Trinity for four days, before an Emergency Committee Meeting lasting just six minutes on 26 June saw Hawa and Joel appointed to the Committee by its existing members, including Zabilowicz and other senior officers.

Cherwell spoke to several influential figures within the Union who claimed that a process is now underway to assemble those eligible to sit on the SDC which will scrutinise Zabilowicz’s ruling.

As soon as a date is agreed upon, former Union officials – at least one of whom is supposed to be a qualified lawyer – will assemble to hear the case.

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The dates on which the hearings will occur will be decided by the SDC members themselves, but constitutionally must take place within 28 days of the official summons.

The decision to appoint two unelected members is reportedly highly likely to be struck down, with Hawa and Joel to then be removed from the Standing Committee, according to numerous sources within the Union.

Allegedly, Zabilowicz is unlikely to face further disciplinary proceedings himself as it will be near impossible to prove that any rule breach was committed intentionally.

Under the terms of the Union rules, the SDC can then elect to expand the scope of their inquiry to consider any other possible rule breach, an option that Cherwell understands is a distinct possibility.

The Union rulebook states further that any accused party and any member of Standing Committee holds the right to appear before the SDC and present evidence, that no person is required to give evidence that might incriminate themselves, and that no person can be convicted unless “the Committee is satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt”.

Oxford Union president Chris Zabilowicz said in a statement to Cherwell: “I appreciate the efforts of the Cherwell Editors to amend the significant number of errors in their lead article dated Friday 20th October.

“As their now amended article highlights, a Senior Disciplinary Committee will be convened simply to consider a ruling I made in Trinity 2017, and has no bearing on my position as President.

“I hope, now, the focus can return to fulfilling the potential this term at the Oxford Union has to be a positive and engaging one.”

An earlier version of this article published in Cherwell’s print edition (20/10/17) wrongly suggested that Oxford Union President Chris Zabilowicz was under investigation for “electoral malpractice”, that he was currently the defendant in this investigation, that he had “placed” the unelected officers onto the Union’s Standing Committee, and that he could be impeached directly as a result of the process. Cherwell would like to clarify that Zabilowicz is not as yet a defendant in the case, is not facing allegations of “electoral malpractice”, cannot face impeachment directly as a result of the process, and that the two unelected members of the committee were appointed by its existing members. We apologise for any confusion or upset caused.