High Court judge refuses to rule on whether Bristol Uni owed duty of care to student

The University of Bristol has lost its appeal in the discrimination case of Natasha Abrahart, who took her own life in 2018, but the case could have had more far reaching implications.

Content warning: this story contains references to suicide

A high court judge has refused to rule on whether the University of Bristol owed a duty of care to a student who took her own life. He said it was “not necessary” for him to express any view “one way or the other”. 

Nastasha Abrahart died in April 2018, a day before she was due to give a presentation to fellow students and staff in a 329-seat lecture theatre. She had been diagnosed with chronic social anxiety disorder two months earlier.

Judge Lindon today (14 February) rejected the Uni’s appeal against a judge’s findings two years ago that Bristol breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments for Natasha and discriminated against her as a disabled student.

But while the decision amounted to “some measure of justice,” Natasha’s mother Margaret Abrahart said, this is only because her daughter’s rights, as a disabled student, were protected under the Equalities Act.

If Lindon had ruled on the family’s cross appeal that, in addition to discriminating against their daughter, the university owed her a duty of care, then the outcome might have had a wider impact on how universities care for their students. 

‘Kicked into the long grass’

This week’s ruling is only the latest milestone in a years-long campaign for better protections for students at university, and comes at a time of widespread concern about student mental health and suicides. Natasha was at least the tenth student at the University of Bristol to take their own life since October 2016.

After a petition calling for a statutory duty of care for students received more than 128,000 signatures, a debate was held in Parliament in July 2023. The debate heard how universities in the UK have changed over time – with a growing number of students being treated more and more like customers, more likely to get  lost in the system – contributing to the need for greater protections.

But in a pre-debate evidence session, national union of students vice president Chloe Field told how unis have become “almost the only port of call” for students if they are suffering with their mental health due to the NHS being overwhelmed – highlighting how student welfare should not be left to universities alone.

Margaret and Robert Abrahart with their daughter Natasha, who took her own life in 2018

In Natasha’s case, a senior coroner in 2019 found a series of failures by mental health services contributed to her death, including Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust’s (AWP) assessment of self harm and management being “significantly flawed”. There was also, the coroner said, an “unacceptable” delay between Natasha being referred to AWP by the university’s GP. 

After the parliamentary debate, in the words of Natasha’s mother, the issue of improving care for students, was then “kicked 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,” she said, speaking outside Bristol Civic Justice Centre on Wednesday.

“If they don’t, then they should prove it.” She asked political parties to add a statutory duty of care for students into their election manifestos.

‘We don’t want sympathy, we want action’

Speaking after the ruling, Natasha’s dad, a retired university lecturer, explained how reaching this week has been a “long and painful journey” – and how “the university of Bristol has fought us every step of the way”. 

He said the judgement confirms what the family always knew to be true – that the university failed their daughter, broke the law, and contributed to her death.

“It is now for the University of Bristol, and higher education institutions across the country, to get their houses in order,” he added.

Responding to the judgement, Evelyn Welch, vice-chancellor and president of the university, said: “Natasha’s death is a tragedy – I am deeply sorry for the Abrahart family’s loss.

“At Bristol, we care profoundly for all our students and their mental health and wellbeing is a priority and is at the heart of everything we do. We continue to develop and improve our services and safeguards to support our students who need help.”

Welch said the appeal case that was thrown out by the judge was to seek clarity for the higher education sector around the application of the Equality Act, and that staff share a deep concert about the increase of mental health issues among young people.

“We know there is always more to do,” she said, “and we will keep working to achieve the best for everyone in our community.”

Natasha’s parents, five years and nine months after Natasha’s death, are still waiting for an apology from her university for failing their daughter. In her statement following this week’s judgement, Margaret Abrahart addressed vice chancellor, Evelyn Welch, directly.

“Don’t instruct your layers to pursue another pointless appeal,” she said. “Don’t delay any longer… We don’t need or want your sympathy. We want action.”

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The Bristol Cable