University liable following student’s tragic death

On 20 May 2022, Bristol County Court gave the anticipated judgment in
Abrahart (Administrator of the estate of Natasha Abrahart, deceased) v University of Bristol.

The judgment considers a range of key issues arising from the sensitive facts.

The case is tragic. Natasha Abrahart was an undergraduate physics student at the University of Bristol. During her second year, as part of the course curriculum, Natasha was required to conduct laboratory experiments and attend assessed interviews. However, Natasha “could not cope with the interviews and her mental health swiftly declined”. On 30 April 2018, she took her own life.

Proceedings were commenced against the University.  There are two key aspects of the judgment:

  1. The judge found the University liable for discriminating against Natasha in respect of a disability under the Equality Act 2010; and
  2. The judge found that the University owed no common law duty of care to Natasha, and it therefore had no liability for negligence.

The judgment explains that Natasha’s family believe the University owed both a “moral and legal responsibility” for Natasha’s decline.  It was alleged that the University had required her to continue to deliver oral interviews for assessment and present at a conference, whilst being aware of her mental health problems and the likelihood of harm being caused by those assessments.

Liable under Equality Act 2010

The judgment notes that by October 2017 Natasha presented with a disability under the Equality Act by reason of depression and clinically significant social anxiety disorder. The court also considered that by this date the University’s staff had sufficient knowledge through their dealings with Natasha to put the University on notice of her disability.   

The duties under the Act are detailed but in summary the judge decided that the University was liable under the Act because:

  1. It was in breach of its duty to Natasha to make reasonable adjustments to avoid the substantial disadvantage that arose from her disability.  The judge also rejected the University’s contention that the interview and conference requirements of the course fell within an exemption under the Act for “competency standards”.  The judge decided this on the basis that (a) these assessments did not require strictly face to face interaction, and (b) Natasha had a chance of “scraping through” the course without interviewing.
  2. It had also treated Natasha unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of her disability.  This was by marking down her oral assessment work and imposing penalty marks when it ought to have known the potential impact her disability had on her ability to present orally.  The judge rejected the University’s contention that the need to ensure a level playing field between students could justify a lack of adjustments for Natasha. 

The judgment also indicates a finding that the University had indirectly discriminated against Natasha in relation to her disability.

Damages were awarded to Natasha’s family under the Act in the sum of £50,000.  It remains to be seen whether an appeal will be pursued.

Not liable in negligence

It was additionally claimed that the University was required to take reasonable care for the wellbeing, health and safety of its students, and, that it was under a duty to take reasonable steps to avoid and not cause injury, including psychiatric injury.

Noting that there was no current precedent or statute which established that a University owed such a duty of care to a student, the judge was not persuaded that a duty existed.  Whilst the University provided learning and welfare support services to students, Natasha was not in the University’s care or control. There was no assumption of such duty. It was also not considered “fair, just or reasonable” to impose a duty of care, given that as a disabled student, Natasha was afforded protection by the Equality Act.

Learning from tragedy

Final takeaway thoughts include: 

  1. Student mental health will continue to be a priority for Higher Education Providers.  The judgment underlines the need to ensure appropriate staff training, student support and adjustments are in place.  This includes where it ought to be apparent that the student may have a disability which prevents them articulating a need for help.  It also includes anticipating in advance how matters such as assessments might impact on students with disabilities and implementing reasonable adjustments where appropriate.
  2. Here the judge found that various adjustments for Natasha’s disability would have been reasonable, such as removing the need for oral assessment, providing written questions in advance or changing the conditions under which she was assessed.
  3. If an appeal is pursued, the analysis above will be revisited.  The University has also indicated it may seek to challenge a previous authority [Birmingham CC v Afsar [2019] EWHC 3217] which the judge held prevented the University from relying on an exclusion in the Equality Act in respect of “anything done in connection with the content of the curriculum”.

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