20 June 2019

Academia's 'fake gowns' row going south?

All lawyers have one thing in common - wearing academic gowns - but passing off controversy is being whipped-up like gowns in a Scottish wind as firm seeks to move case to English court.

An Australian firm being sued by the University of St Andrews in Scotland over discounted gowns is attempting to have the case heard south of the border in England, according to a report in The Times of London.

Anti-competitive

Churchill Gowns sells a red “University of St Andrews” gown worn by all undergraduates from as little as £89. The official gowns cost £159. The university has demanded that the company remove references to the university from its sales material. However, Churchill has asked the Court of Session to change the legal forum so it can take on other UK universities that have tried to ban replica gowns. Keele University warned students they would not be admitted on graduation day unless they wore gowns from “authorised supplier of academic dress, Ede & Ravenscroft”. Oliver Adkins, managing director of Churchill Gowns told the newspaper, “This case has obviously had a financial cost to us as well as causing damage to our brand. This case is a big barrier for us. We are still determined to provide students with the products that we sell so it won’t be a final blow for us, but it will be a sad day for students whose university isn’t looking out for their right to a free choice.” Ruth Nicholls, the firm’s director of operations, said “We see the St Andrews case as part of a wider pattern of behaviour that we’ve experienced from universities and encumbered suppliers in the marketplace, which is very hostile to free competition.” She added, “We think this is illegal and in breach of the Competition Act.” Ms Nicholls said added: “No other universities have taken action against us but they have behaved in ways that we believe to be anti-competitive, trying to enforce contracts with encumbered suppliers and telling students that they’re only allowed to buy from a single supplier.”

Passing off

A spokesman for St Andrews University said “Our dispute with Churchill Gowns has nothing whatsoever to do with the matter of monopoly or graduation gowns, and is concerned only with the fact that representatives of Churchill last year attempted to pass themselves off as official agents of the university in selling red gowns to St Andrews students.” The spokesman explained, “Red gowns are not graduation gowns and have been worn by St Andrews students for over 600 years. Students who bought from Churchill’s pop-up shop on the pavement believed they were buying from the university, and were offered free beer and misleading leaflets. Several complained to the university afterwards.” As a result, “The opinion of our lawyers is that Churchill should be challenged on the matter of ‘passing off’. Our students are at liberty to buy gowns from whomsoever they choose, but they have a right to be informed about the identity of the vendor.”