Parliament To Debate Legal Duty Of Care For Students
On Monday 5 June parliamentarians will hold a landmark debate on closing a legal loophole which campaigners fear puts university students at risk.
In October 2022 a group of bereaved parents launched a parliamentary petition calling on ministers to pass legislation to better protect students. The group, which includes the parents of Natasha Abrahart, who took her own life while a second-year physics student at the University of Bristol, says universities should owe a statutory duty to exercise reasonable care and skill when teaching students and providing support services.
In May 2022 a senior county court judge ruled that the University breached its duties under the Equality Act and that these breaches led to Natasha’s death. 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.
In a legal note circulated to parliamentarians in advance of the debate, the Abraharts’ legal team have warned that “at present there is no clear legal authority to the effect that universities owe a duty of care to take reasonable care for their students’ wellbeing, health and safety, and in particular to take reasonable steps to avoid and not to cause or contribute to psychiatric injury.”
The lawyers, including Gus Silverman, a Public Law and Human Rights expert at the law firm Irwin Mitchell, say that this gap in the law “contrasts starkly with the expectations of students, their families, professional bodies … and even the Government” and describes the introduction of a statutory duty of care as “an important matter meriting Parliamentary attention.”
In January 2023 the Government responded to the petition promoted by The LEARN Network and #ForThe100 campaign groups, claiming that “Higher Education providers do have a general duty of care to deliver educational and pastoral services to the standard of an ordinarily competent institution.” However, this is described by the Abraharts’ lawyers as being “overly simplistic”, noting that the language used by the Government appeared to have been taken from a 2015 paper published by a professional body for university administrators which “appears to have been prepared following a group discussion rather than a detailed review of the relevant legal principles.”
The legal note, written by Gus Silverman, Jamie Burton KC and Sarah Steinhardt argues that “a claim in negligence may provide [students or their families] with a better opportunity for securing accountability when compared with a claim under the Equality Act.”
In a separate development, the High Court has granted the University of Bristol permission to appeal against the judgment that it caused Natasha Abrahart’s death by breaching the Equality Act. Lawyers for Natasha’s family have said they will ask the High Court to uphold the claim in negligence by finding that the University owed the 20-year old a duty of care under the law of negligence in addition to its duties under the Equality Act.
Natasha’s father, Robert Abrahart, 66, a retired university lecturer, said: “MPs and Peers now have a huge opportunity to improve the safety of university students in this country. We hope this debate will be a springboard for introducing a Bill into Parliament that ensures universities owe similar legal duties to their students as they owe to their employees.
“The current arrangement, where the courts are very unlikely to find a university liable for allowing a student to suffer foreseeable harm, unless the student is disabled, is illogical and unsustainable.”
Natasha’s mother, Margaret, 61, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, said: “We have to make sure that we learn from Natasha’s death, and the deaths of all the other students who took their own lives while at university. We must stop this from happening again. We are doing all we can through the courts to try to get adequate legal protections for students but now we need our politicians to step up.
“This isn’t about expecting universities to treat students like children or asking staff to be stand-in parents. It's about introducing a common-sense legal duty which says that universities should take reasonable steps to avoid and not to cause harm to their students. I don’t see why that should be controversial.”
Expert Opinion“The lack of a duty of care on universities to take reasonable care for their students’ wellbeing is a surprising gap in the law. If Natasha had not been disabled then this gap would have allowed the University of Bristol to avoid liability for her death.
“This would have been the case even though the court found that Natasha experienced ‘serious and … continuous’ suffering as the result of an assessment regime which the University ‘knew that Natasha was unable to participate [in] for mental health reasons beyond her control.’
“It is unclear why students in this country should have any fewer legal protections than their counterparts in the USA and Australia, where universities are already required to act with reasonable care and skill in order to protect their students from reasonably foreseeable harm.” Gus Silverman
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