The future of the Cape Breton University Students’ Union is in question after it lost a legal battle against a national student organization, leaving it on the hook for more than $300,000.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert Beaudoin ruled last Friday that the CBU Students’ Union must pay nearly $300,000 in damages, plus six years of unpaid dues and court costs, to the Canadian Federation of Students.

The case stems from the Sydney-based student union’s attempt to separate from the national student-union body through a referendum vote held in March 2008.

Students at Cape Breton University said Tuesday that they were disappointed with the decision.

“I think it's terrible what they're doing to a small students’ union. I don't know how they expect us to pay almost $400,000,” said CBU nursing student Leah MacDonald.

In the referendum, CBU students voted to separate from the national organization, which represents more than 70 university and college students’ union.

The Federation countered that the students’ union didn’t follow the proper guidelines for doing so.

“It was mostly contractual and we did not follow their bylaws to a tee. And that our legal council was not on point at that point in time as well,” said CBU Students’ Union President Brandon Ellis.

“We did not receive good legal advice.”

In his decision released last Friday, Justice Beaudoin said the rules required individual members of the CBU Students’ Union to initiate the separation process with a petition.

“In this case, it is clear that the process was initiated by the voting member, the executive of the (CBU Students’ Union),” the ruling stated.

If a solution isn’t found soon, Ellis says the executive must consider cutting jobs, filing for bankruptcy or folding the students’ union altogether.

“There is a chance (of the students’ union folding) and that would be really disheartening because we employ close to 80 people here on campus,” Ellis said.

He said the union has 30 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling.

With files from CTV Atlantic’s Kyle Moore