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Natasha Abrahart judgment: do universities owe a duty of care to their students?

Dan Webster and Anna Moore consider whether the law offers sufficient protections for university students who are at risk of harm due to their mental health, following the High Court judgment regarding the 2018 death of Natasha Abrahart, a student at Bristol University

Posted on 20 February 2024

The mental health and wellbeing of university students has been an issue of acute and growing public concern in recent years, in the context of shocking statistics regarding the number of students taking their own lives and numerous tragic stories of universities failing to take adequate steps or have proper systems in place to protect students who are known to be at risk or to have particular vulnerabilities. This is a subject which has once again been brought into focus by the recent High Court judgment in the claim arising from the death of Natasha Abrahart, a student at Bristol University, who died in 2018.

As widely reported following the judgment, which upheld the decision of Bristol County Court in 2022, it is understood to be the first time that a court has recognised disability discrimination (under the Equality Act 2010) as having contributed to a person’s death. The precedent it sets has the potential to have a significant impact in the education context and beyond. It is of particular significance in respect of the legal obligations which universities owe to students who require reasonable adjustments relating to their mental health or neurological differences.

In this blog, we will look at some of the issues arising from the High Court’s judgment and the impact the judgment may have, as well as considering the wider question of whether the law offers sufficient protections for university students who are at risk of harm due to their mental health.

Mental health of university students: the wider picture

By way of context, the scale of the problem is evident from some of the statistics relating to poor mental health and suicide of university students. To cite just a few:

In addition to the case of Natasha Abrahart, there have been a number of high-profile cases in recent years in which similar, systemic issues have been identified as having contributed to students’ deaths. These include the following:

  1. The inquest into the death of Harry Armstrong Evans, a student at the University of Exeter, at which the Coroner found that “a catalogue of missed opportunities coupled with systems failings” by the university had contributed to Harry’s death. The systemic failings identified included a lack of mandatory training on suicide prevention and mental health awareness.
  2. The inquest into the death of Will Bargate, a student at Warwick University, at which the Coroner found that the university “should have been more proactive” in providing support.
  3. The inquest into the death of Matthew Wickes, a student at the University of Southampton, at which the Coroner raised concerns “about the level of awareness, understanding and curiosity of academic staff around the mental health of students.”
  4. The inquest into the death of Theo Brennan-Hulme, a student at the University of East Anglia, who had autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and died in March 2019. The concerns raised at the inquest into Theo’s death included a lack of action by the university’s wellbeing team in response to Theo’s non-attendance at a wellbeing appointment, a lack of information sharing with mental health services and a lack of communication with Theo’s family.

The High Court judgment

The High Court judgment in respect of Natasha Abrahart’s death related to a claim brought by Natasha’s parents against the University of Bristol, which alleged that the university had contributed to Natasha’s death, firstly by discriminating against her on the grounds of disability contrary to the Equality Act 2010, and secondly by breaching a duty of care owed her under the law of negligence.

Natasha died on 30 April 2018. She took her own life on the day that she had been due to take part in an oral assessment involving a presentation to more than 40 students. Natasha suffered from depression and Social Anxiety Disorder, which qualified as a ‘disability’ for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.

In May 2022, Judge Ralton at Bristol County Court found that the university had breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments in relation to academic assessments of Natasha, had indirectly discriminated against Natasha and treated her unfavourably due to the consequences of her disability. He ordered the university to pay damages to Natasha’s family on that basis. In respect of the claim in negligence, Judge Ralton found that it would not be “fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care [on the University] to Natasha because, as a disabled student … she is afforded protection by the Equality Act 2010.”

The case then came before the High Court following an appeal by the University of Bristol against the Judge’s finding that the university had breached its duties under the Equality Act 2010 and a separate ‘cross-appeal’ by Natasha’s family against the judge’s conclusion that the university did not owe Natasha a duty of care in negligence.

The High Court judgment of Mr Justice Linden emphatically upheld the conclusion of Judge Ralton that the University of Bristol had breached its obligations towards Natasha under the Equality Act 2010. He did not accept the university’s arguments that it had not been under a duty to make reasonable adjustments in relation to oral assessments of Natasha and found that it had not provided “cogent reasons for its failure to make adjustments.”

In relation to the family’s claim in negligence, Mr Justice Linden held that it was not necessary for him to express a view one way or the other as to whether the university owed a duty of care to Natasha. He deemed that it ‘would not be wise’ to do so, given that it is an issue “of potentially wide application and significance” and making a finding would risk prolonging the litigation between Natasha’s family and the university.

Following the judgment, Natasha’s parents welcomed the High Court’s finding that the university had discriminated against Natasha. However, Natasha’s mother, Maggie Abrahart, also stated as follows:

“We have been able to get some measure of justice for Natasha because she was disabled and therefore covered by the Equality Act. But what about students who aren’t disabled? They need a statutory duty of care. 128,000 people signed a petition calling for a statutory duty requiring universities to act with reasonable care and skill to avoid harming students, but the Government kicked the issue into the long grass. Do Keir Starmer, Rishi Sunak, and the other party leaders really think universities should be allowed to cause harm to their students by acting without reasonable care and skill? If they don’t, then they should prove it. Put a statutory duty of care for universities in your manifestos, or explain to the voters why you think that some students should be protected while others are not.”

The significance of the judgment and potential implications

In many respects, this is a landmark judgment in relation to the obligations which universities owe to students who have additional needs relating to their mental health. The fact that the High Court has upheld a ruling that the university is liable for disability discrimination, and that this contributed to Natasha’s death, is likely to be of great significance in future cases. It makes clear that universities will face legal consequences where they fail to make reasonable adjustments for a student’s mental health-related needs and that the courts will not be afraid to recognise a link between such discrimination and a student’s death in certain circumstances such as Natasha’s.

This sets a powerful precedent that will be of assistance to other bereaved families who allege that a university failed to make adjustments for their loved ones’ needs and that this led to their death. Even more importantly, it sends a strong message to universities that change is needed in how they deal with students with mental health difficulties: they will be held accountable if they continue to fall short in responding to students’ mental health-related needs.

However, as addressed in Maggie Abrahart’s powerful statement in response to the judgment, there are limitations to the ruling that the university discriminated against Natasha and the implications it will have in future cases. The family were only able to bring a claim arising from Natasha’s death under the Equality Act 2010 because Natasha had a recognised disability in light of her diagnoses of depression and Social Anxiety Disorder. Where a student does not have a recognised mental health-related disability, the same form of legal redress would not be available. This issue lies at the heart of the Abrahart family’s call for a legal ‘duty of care’ to be imposed on universities, so that they can be held accountable when they are negligent in responding to the needs of any student.

There are potentially significant advantages to imposing such a duty of care: it would widen the circumstances in which students and bereaved families are able to hold universities accountable and potentially to obtain financial compensation for harm suffered due to a university’s negligence. Perhaps the most important hope of bereaved families and campaigners is that it would compel universities to take their obligations towards all students more seriously, equip staff to deal with this appropriately, and to put in place more meaningful measures to protect students from mental health-related harm.

However, as with many legal reforms, a duty of care in negligence is not likely to offer a complete solution. While improved legal redress for students who suffer harm and bereaved families is undoubtedly needed, the law of negligence comes with its own limitations in respect of the circumstances in which universities may be held liable. By way of example, the issue of causation is often complex in negligence claims and would be likely to require more detailed analysis by the courts of the extent to which harm suffered by a student resulted from a university’s acts or omissions. Additionally, negligence claims can only offer financial redress for what has been lost. Although creating a financial incentive for universities to improve their policies and practices is undoubtedly important, claims of this nature tend to be rather a blunt tool in pushing for change.

In the absence of legislation imposing a duty of care, it is likely that a court will be required in due course to determine the issue of whether (and in what circumstances) such a duty exists at present under the common law (i.e. the law established via legal precedent by the courts). The judgment of Mr Justice Linden effectively postponed this decision and acknowledged that it is an issue which may be determined by the Court of Appeal if there is an appeal to the High Court judgment. If a duty of care is established, it must be hoped that this offers one important part of the solution in creating a safer environment for students. However, significant further reforms are likely to be needed, including in how universities are regulated, not just as providers of education but as institutions which bear responsibility for their students’ wellbeing.

At present, it is clear that lessons have not been adequately learned from the tragic cases of Natasha Abrahart and the other students referred to above. We represent a number of bereaved families who have lost loved ones while at university. Their concerns include familiar issues in respect of the academic requirements imposed on students, problems with student wellbeing services responding to concerns and shortcomings in information sharing with healthcare organisations and students’ families. It is clear that urgent action is needed and, for the families we represent, it cannot come soon enough.

If you are affected by the issues discussed in this blog post, support is available. For bereavement support, you can contact Cruse via their website. If you are in mental health distress, you can contact the Samaritans (116 123). If you are in mental health crisis, or feeling suicidal, you can call 111 or your GP, and in an emergency call 999.

You can find more information about the campaign for a statutory duty of care to be imposed on universities here.

You can find out more about inquests and Leigh Day’s specialist inquest lawyers here.

Dan Webster (1)
Court of Protection Discrimination Human rights Inquests Judicial review Public law

Dan Webster

Dan is an associate solicitor in the human rights department

Anna Moore
Court of Protection Human rights Inquests Judicial review

Anna Moore

Anna Moore is a partner in the human rights department.

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