An international business school has avoided potential fines of more than $200,000 after charges over allegedly falsifying student records were dismissed in an unprecedented case.
The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) launched a criminal prosecution against the International College of New Zealand Limited (ICNZ), a deregistered private training establishment, and its director in March 2018.
The protracted case saw ICNZ and Chirag Solanki face 21 charges of breaching section 292c of the Education Act, which makes it a criminal offence to falsify a student's record of achievement.
The charges related to the alleged entry of false "achieved" results on to ICNZ students' records of achievement for its national diploma in business (level 5).
It was the first time a company had been prosecuted under the section.
On October 27, the Auckland District Court delivered its ruling and dismissed the charges against ICNZ and Solanki, who was in court to hear the verdicts.
NZQA had claimed the alleged offending at ICNZ, based in central Auckland, was so systematic and widespread that everyone working at the school must have known.
However, the court found there was insufficient evidence to prove the charges beyond reasonable doubt or to show what was known and by whom.
Despite the charges being dismissed, the court said this was not indicative that the school wasn't in "significant disarray".
In statement, Solanki's lawyer, Shane Elliott, said NZQA's prosecution included allegations at trial that his client had falsified student records for financial gain.
"Those allegations have been strenuously denied by ICNZ and Mr Solanki from the outset," he said.
"Both ICNZ and Mr Solanki have only ever acted with the best interests of students at heart. My clients' position has been entirely vindicated following Judge Henwood's dismissal of all charges ... Judge Henwood found that NZQA's case was misconceived (both legally and factually) and that it had failed to produce any evidence to support its serious allegation that tutors had knowingly recorded false results."
Elliott said the prosecution has taken "an enormous toll" on Solanki and his family.
"NZQA's pursuit of this case has destroyed Mr Solanki's business and tarnished his professional reputation beyond a point that may ever be able to be remedied.
"He and his family have been forced to carry this millstone around their necks for almost three years at great financial and social cost before only finally, now, being vindicated. With this decision they can now try to begin putting their life back together."
If ICNZ and Solanki had been convicted they faced fines of up to $10,000 on each of 21 charges.
NZQA told the Herald in a statement it was disappointed with the result.
But NZQA chief executive Dr Grant Klinkum said it was pleasing to see the court acknowledge ICNZ was in disarray.
"In one example, the court accepted that, of a sample of 59 student assessments awarded 'Achieved' grades by ICNZ, 56 should have been awarded 'Not Achieved', a failure rate of 95 per cent."
The court also stated it appeared ICNZ's academic staff were aware that the commercial and academic practices fell short, Klinkum said.
"While this prosecution was unsuccessful, NZQA considers it put forward a strong case," he said.
"We will continue to do what is required to raise quality standards across the tertiary education sector."
NZQA withdrew ICNZ's accreditation in July 2017 to provide the National Diploma in Business (level 5), National Diploma in Business (level 6), Diploma in Business Management (level 7) and Diploma in Homeopathy (level 7).
At the time ICNZ had about 100 students studying business-related courses, while NZQA worked to help refund their fees.
The authority said it had identified significant concerns about assessment capability and practice at ICNZ.
In a separate case, NZQA also prosecuted a private training school and its director for the unapproved enrolment of international students and false marketing claims.
Daniel Hunt and The Career Academy (TCA), an unregistered private tertiary provider based in Parnell, pleaded guilty in 2018 to 33 total charges of breaching the Education Act.
One such breach saw the school charge fees for a student enrolled in its dog grooming course for accounting-based unit standards.
Other illegally used marketing terms to describe qualifications included "Bachelor of Business" and "New Zealand Diploma in Accounting".
TCA was convicted on each of the 17 charges it faced, fined $56,000 and ordered to pay court costs of $2210.
Hunt, meanwhile, was discharged without conviction for his 16 charges but ordered to pay $24,000 in costs.
He fought off an appeal by NZQA in 2019 over his lack of conviction but was unsuccessful in a bid to have his name permanently suppressed.
Hunt and TCA apologised for what it called "administrative errors".
- This story has been updated following delivery of the court's written judgment after it was originally published on October 27, 2020.