University of Bristol takes Natasha Abrahart judgment to High Court

Institution’s bid to overturn ruling that Bristol failed in its duties comes amid debate over extent of institutional responsibility for undergraduate welfare

October 6, 2022
bristol-overview
Source: University of Bristol

The University of Bristol is challenging a landmark court ruling that it breached its duties of care towards a student by failing to adjust how she was assessed before she took her own life.

In May the university was ordered by a judge to pay £50,000 in damages to Robert and Margaret Abrahart whose daughter Natasha, a second-year physics student who suffered from chronic anxiety, was found dead in her student room in April 2018 shortly before she was due to give a presentation to fellow students in a 329-seat lecture theatre.

While a coroner’s hearing in 2019 found no evidence of failures by the university, a county court upheld a claim this year by Natasha’s parents that Bristol had failed to make adequate adjustments so she could participate in her course, despite counsellors knowing about her suicidal thoughts.

The judge ruled Bristol had not been negligent, but it rejected the university’s argument that the presentation was required because the ability to explain and justify experimental work orally was a “core competency of a professional scientist”.

There were other ways of assessing her ability to understand the experiments that did not require face-to-face interaction, he said.

Now the university has said it is seeking leave from the High Court to appeal that judgment that the university was in breach of the Equality Act.

In a statement published on 6 October, it said the appeal was needed because “we are seeking absolute clarity for the higher education sector around the application of the Equality Act when staff do not know a student has a disability, or when it has yet to be diagnosed.”

“We hope it will also enable us to provide transparency to students and their families about how we support them and to give all university staff across the country the confidence to do that properly,” it added.

In Natasha’s case, “academic and administrative staff assisted Natasha with a referral to both the NHS and our Disability Services”, Bristol continued. It had also suggested “alternative options for her academic assessment to alleviate the anxiety she faced about presenting her laboratory findings to her peers,” it added.

“However the judgement suggests they should have gone further than this, although Natasha's mental health difficulties had not been diagnosed. Understandably, this has caused considerable anxiety as it puts a major additional burden on staff who are primarily educators, not healthcare professionals,” it said.

The leave to appeal bid – which follows a similar unsuccessful request to the local courts this month – is likely to focus attention on how much responsibility Bristol should bear for Natasha’s death given the failings of NHS treatment in her case. At a coroner’s hearing in May 2019, it was ruled that Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership Trust had “significantly underestimated” her condition and there was a “gross failure” to provide care.

Ms Abrahart, who had tried to kill herself three times, had to wait more than a month between mental health worker visits and it was decided she was not at significant risk.

In its statement, Bristol said it was “determined to do our very best to support any student who is struggling with their mental health through the provision of a wide range of services” but “it is important that students and their families are clear on what universities can and cannot do, and that students receive appropriate specialist care under the NHS should they need it.”

The case has sparked a national conversation about the extent of universities’ duty of care towards students, with Universities UK updating its guidance this week, which now encourages institutions to contact family members, carers or friends if they have serious concerns about their mental health, even without their permission.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

• If you’re having suicidal thoughts or feel you need to talk to someone, a free helpline is available around the clock in the UK on 116123, or you can email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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