More Than 17,000 Signatories Call For Legal Reform
The parents of a vulnerable student who took her life after a university discriminated against her have responded with alarm to a Government statement which they say risks undermining a campaign for student safety.
In October 2022 Margaret and Robert Abrahart joined with others in The LEARN Network to launch a parliamentary petition calling on ministers to pass legislation to better protect students.
The group, which includes 25 bereaved families, says universities should owe a statutory duty to exercise reasonable care and skill when teaching students and providing support services.
The petition followed a ruling by a senior county court judge in May 2022 that the University of Bristol had caused the death of second-year physics student Natasha Abrahart when it breached its duties under the Equality Act. This included failing to make reasonable adjustments to the way the university assessed Natasha on account of her social anxiety disorder.
Circuit Judge Alex Ralton found that the university’s regime of oral assessments placed Natasha at a substantial disadvantage when compared with students who did not share her disability and that this caused her to take her own life. However, he was not prepared to find that the university owed Natasha a more general ‘duty of care’ to take reasonable steps to avoid causing her psychiatric injury and harm.
At the end of January 2023, after the petition gained over 10,000 signatures, the Department for Education responded stating: “Higher Education providers do have a general duty of care to deliver educational and pastoral services to the standard of an ordinarily competent institution and, in carrying out these services, they are expected to act reasonably to protect the health, safety and welfare of their students. This can be summed up as providers owing a duty of care to not cause harm to their students through the university’s own actions.”
More than 17,000 people have now signed the petition.
The Government’s response has drawn criticism from the Abraharts, who say it is meaningless in the absence of a commitment to establish a statutory duty of care.
Robert, 66, a retired university lecturer, said: “The Government’s response appears to be an attempt at ducking the issue, and it does nothing to inform the debate about how the universities should keep students safe.
"The judge in Natasha’s case refused to recognise a duty of care on universities to take reasonable care for the wellbeing, health and safety of its students, and to avoid causing them psychiatric injury through methods of teaching for example. The response from the Department for Education ignores this entirely.
"If the Government agrees with us that students deserve the protection of a legal duty of care then it should introduce a bill in Parliament rather than making bland statements. Such a duty should cover not only negligent acts by universities but also negligent failures to act, which the Government’s statement also ignores.”
Margaret, 61, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, added: “I fear this response was made in the hope that we would go away. We and the other members of The LEARN Network will not go away until we have improved the protections for vulnerable university students. We owe it to Natasha, and to all the others who have died far too young, to make sure their deaths were not in vain.”
Gus Silverman is a human rights lawyer at Irwin Mitchell who represented Robert and Margaret, as well as the families of other students who have taken their lives.
Expert Opinion“Natasha’s parents were able to get some measure of justice because the particular requirements of the Equality Act were met in Natasha’s case.
"However, unless they are able to establish the existence of a duty of care in negligence many families and students will find it very difficult to hold universities accountable through the courts, including where a death has tragically occurred.
"The Government now has an opportunity to clearly define in statute the legal duties owed by universities to students. Failing to seize this opportunity risks preventing access to justice through the courts.” Gus Silverman
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