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High Court To Decide Whether Universities Owe Students Legal Duty Of Care


Anna Boyne

A landmark hearing beginning on the 11th December will decide whether universities owe a legal duty of care for their students.

This comes as there are growing concerns about the declining state of student mental health, with a number of recent widely reported suicides.

Natasha Abrahart, a 20 year old physics students at the University of Bristol, took her own life the day before she was due to give an oral exam to students and staff in a large lecture theatre. She had been diagnosed with chronic Social Anxiety Disorder in February 2018.

Judge Alex Ralton ordered the University of Bristol to pay over £50,000 in damages

Her parents, Robert and Margaret Abrahart, successfully sued the University of Bristol in May 2022. Their lawyers argued that failures to make adjustments in light of her social anxiety disorder caused a serious deterioration in her mental health.

A senior County Court judge found that Abrahart had taken her own life as the result of multiple breaches of the Equality Act 2010, amounting to disability discrimination. Judge Alex Ralton ordered the University of Bristol to pay over £50,000 in damages.

Natasha Abrahart was at least the tenth student at the University of Bristol to take their own life since October 2016.

In March 2023, the University of Bristol was granted permission to appeal to the High Court against the finding that it had breached the Equality Act.

The University did not owe their daughter a duty of care in negligence

A spokesperson from the University of Bristol said: “Collectively, we are deeply concerned by the increase of mental health issues amongst our young people nationally. At the same time, 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.”

Natasha Abrahart’s parents have also been granted permission to appeal against the finding that the University did not owe their daughter a duty of care in negligence. Judge Alex Ralton said: “There is no doubt that the University would have been in breach” if they owed a legal duty of care for their students.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission have been granted permission to intervene

A three day hearing beginning on the 11th December 2023 will consider these two separate issues.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have been granted permission to intervene in what has been described as a “landmark legal case.”

Baroness Kishwer Falker, Chairwoman of the EHRC, said: “Our intervention will ensure we can offer the court clear and impartial guidance on equality law, ultimately helping universities to understand their responsibilities under the Equality Act.”

Gus Silverman who represents the Abraharts said: “The intervention of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is an indication of the significant wider issues raised by this case.”

Under laws of negligence, the University of Bristol did not owe Natasha Abrahart any duty of care. The High Court will decide whether this is correct, and how universities are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to avoid discriminating against disabled students.

Margaret Abrahart, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner said: “We need something positive to come from the nightmare of Natasha’s death… We don’t expect universities to treat students like children and don’t think lecturers should have parental responsibility.”

“We just want to see a common sense legal duty on universities to take reasonable steps not to harm their students.”

Universities UK speaks on behalf of more than 140 institutions. They stated: “We do not believe a further statutory duty would be the best approach to improve outcomes for students.”

Jess Couchman is a student at the University of Nottingham who currently has a support plan in place. She said: “The amount of students who actually need support does not correspond with the support that can be offered by the uni.”

“I do believe if it was a legal requirement for the university to support their students then much more investment and value will be placed on the importance of mental wellbeing at university.”

Anna Boyne

Featured image courtesy of Nik via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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