Court To Decide Whether University Contributed To Death Of Vulnerable Student
Bristol County Court is due to deliver its judgment in a long running case brought by the parents of an undergraduate student who took her own life in 2018.
Natasha Abrahart’s body was found in her private flat in April 2018 on the day she was due to give a presentation to fellow University of Bristol students and staff in a 329-seat lecture theatre.
The second-year physics student had been diagnosed with chronic social anxiety disorder in February 2018. She was at least the tenth student at the University of Bristol to take their own life since October 2016.
The 20-year-old had been a high-achieving student until her second year at university. Academic staff had become aware that she was struggling and was experiencing anxiety and panic attacks in relation to oral assessments that formed part of a laboratory module. In February 2018 a university employee received an email from Natasha’s account saying “I’ve been having suicidal thoughts and to a certain degree attempted it”.
An inquest into Natasha’s death in May 2019 concluded that she had been neglected by mental health services. The Senior Coroner for Avon, Maria Voisin, had ruled that the adequacy of support provided to Natasha by the university was outside the scope of her inquest.
Natasha’s parents, Robert and Margaret Abrahart aged 66 and 60, via their lawyers at Irwin Mitchell, filed court documents challenging the university’s role in Natasha’s death.
The trial was heard over five days in March 2022 at which the university denied breaching any statutory duties to Natasha. The university also argued that it had no relevant legal duty of care.
The family’s lawyers argued that the university breached equality laws when it failed to adjust its regime of oral assessments in light of Natasha’s social anxiety disorder. These breaches, the family’s lawyers argued, caused a deterioration in Natasha’s mental health leading to her death.
Natasha’s parents, Robert and Margaret, will read a statement outside the court after the decision is published at 2pm on 20 May 2022.
Robert Abrahart said: “It has been a long and painful journey getting to this point. All we initially wanted was to find out exactly what had happened to our daughter. Nobody seemed particularly interested, so we made it our job to ensure that the circumstances leading up to Natasha’s death were fully investigated, and that any institutions bearing responsibility were held to account. We will keep Natasha in our hearts as we wait to receive the court’s final judgment.”
Margaret Abrahart said: “Whatever the outcome of this case we hope we have drawn attention to the need for universities to ensure they don’t indirectly discriminate against students with mental illnesses by forcing them into ‘one size fits all’ methods of assessment, which can be dangerous as well as distressing.”
Expert Opinion“All universities have obligations under the Equality Act to ensure that students with disabilities, whether physical or non-physical, are not unlawfully discriminated against. This can include a duty to make reasonable adjustments to methods of assessment so as to ensure those methods don’t place students at a substantial disadvantage. 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.” Gus Silverman - Associate Solicitor