A judge has found the University of Bristol liable for breaches of legal duties it owed to a vulnerable undergraduate who took her own life in what is being seen as a landmark decision.
Natasha Abrahart’s parents have long argued that the university failed to make “reasonable” allowances for their daughter’s severe social anxiety.
Abrahart, a 20-year-old physics undergraduate, was found dead at her flat in 2018, a day before she was to take part in a presentation to staff and students in a large lecture theatre.
Robert and Margaret Abrahart sued Bristol under the Equalities Act for not taking reasonable care of their daughter’s “wellbeing, health and safety”, arguing that the university did not do enough to help despite staff knowing that Abrahart suffered from mental disabilities and was struggling with her studies.
In a 46-page written judgment issued on Friday at Bristol county court, Judge Alex Ralton found that the university had breached its duties to make reasonable adjustments to the way it assessed Natasha; engaged in indirect disability discrimination against her; and treated Natasha unfavourably because of the consequences of her disability.
He noted: “It was accepted by the medical experts that the primary stressor and cause of Natasha’s depressive illness was oral assessment.”
The university was ordered to pay £50,000 to her parents.
Speaking after the judgment was handed down, Robert Abrahart, a retired university lecturer, said: “Today, 1,481 days after Natasha took her own life on the day of an assessment she simply couldn’t do, after years of protestations from the university that it did all it could to support her, after having battled our way through an inquest and a civil trial, we finally have the truth: the University of Bristol broke the law and exposed our daughter to months of wholly unnecessary psychological trauma, as she watched her grades plummet, and her hopes for the future crumble before her eyes.”
Margaret Abrahart, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, said: “We really hope that the University of Bristol will finally take its head out of the sand and recognise that now is the time for change.
“We are ready to work with them to help ensure that the failings which led to Natasha’s death aren’t repeated so other families don’t have to suffer as we have suffered. We hope they will apologise for the role they played in Natasha’s death and will take us up on our offer of help.”
Gus Silverman, a public law and human rights specialist at Irwin Mitchell, representing the family, said: “This judgment should serve as a wake-up call to all higher education institutions. They have to ensure that they understand and comply with their duties under the Equality Act.
“This means not assessing disabled students, including those disabled by mental illnesses, in the same way as students who don’t share their disability if such assessments put those students at a substantial disadvantage, unless there is a very good reason for doing so.
“This isn’t about giving disabled students an unfair advantage over their peers; it’s about levelling the playing field so that everyone has a chance to succeed. As Natasha’s case tragically illustrates, breaching the Equality Act is not only unlawful, it can also be fatal.”
Abrahart was one of 11 University of Bristol students to kill themselves between 2016 and 2018.
A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “Our whole university community has been deeply affected by Natasha’s tragic death and we would once again like to extend our sympathies to her friends and family.
“We believe staff in the school of physics worked incredibly hard and diligently to support Natasha during her time with us, and it was due to their efforts that she was receiving specialist mental health support from the NHS. Our staff’s efforts also included offering alternative options for Natasha’s assessments to alleviate the anxiety she faced about presenting her laboratory findings to her peers. We are very grateful to them for their endeavours on Natasha’s behalf and for their unwavering commitment to our students.
“We cannot replicate the NHS but are committed to working with the NHS and other partners to improve services and ensure we are collectively providing the best possible support for students.
“Given the significant impact this decision could have on how all higher education providers support their students, we are reviewing the decision carefully, including whether to appeal.”
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org