Bristol University found guilty of failings over death of student

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

A leading university has been ordered to pay £50,000 in damages to the parents of a vulnerable student who took her own life, after a senior judge ruled it had discriminated against her.

In a landmark case that has deep implications for other higher education institutions, the parents of Natasha Abrahart successfully sued the University of Bristol under the Equality Act.

Abrahart, 20, a physics undergraduate who suffered from severe social anxiety, died a day before she was due to give a “terrifying” oral exam in front of teachers and fellow students.

Her parents, Robert and Margaret Abrahart, claim failings at the university played a vital role in their daughter’s death, and called for the government to meet them and other parents who have lost children, in order to find ways of improving the care universities provide to vulnerable students.

Speaking outside court, Robert Abrahart, himself a retired university lecturer, said: “There are no winners or losers. Natasha is dead and the university’s reputation is in tatters.

“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 unnecessary psychological trauma, as she watched her grades plummet, and her hopes for the future crumble before her eyes.”

Natasha’s mother, Margaret Abrahart, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, said she had gone to the cemetery to apologise to her daughter before taking the university to court. “She would have hated this attention,” she said.

Abrahart was one of 11 University of Bristol students to kill themselves in a three-year period between 2016 and 2018. Mrs Abrahart said that when she and her husband realised that other students were suffering and others had died, not just at Bristol but at universities across the country, they felt they had to act.

Abrahart, 20, was found dead at her flat in April 2018, shortly before she was to take part in a presentation to staff and students in a large lecture theatre.

Her parents sued the university under the Equality Act for not taking reasonable care of their daughter’s wellbeing, health and safety, arguing it did not do enough to help her despite staff knowing she had a disability and was struggling deeply.

In a judgment issued on Friday at Bristol county court, judge Alex Ralton said: “There can be no doubt that there was direct discrimination, especially once the university knew or should have known that a mental health disability of some sort was preventing Natasha from performing.”

He found the university breached its duties to make reasonable adjustments to the way it assessed Abrahart and treated her unfavourably. The judge noted that “it was accepted by the medical experts that the primary stressor and cause of Natasha’s depressive illness was oral assessment”.

Mr Abrahart said his daughter had gone to Bristol to study a subject she loved.

He said: “She was bright, she was diligent, and she was hardworking. In a document we found on her computer after her death she said: ‘I love the idea of being able to understand (or at least notice) the rules that nature follows.’ Natasha would have made an excellent physicist if only the university hadn’t discriminated against her.”

Abrahart said his daughter struggled to speak to people she did not know, particularly people in positions of authority. “Expecting Natasha to take part in oral assessments was like expecting a student in a wheelchair to take an exam in a room at the top of a long flight of stairs.”

He said the prospect of her contributing to a group presentation in a large lecture theatre would have been “truly terrifying”, adding: “Instead of attending that session, she took her own life.”

He said the adjustments that his daughter needed to succeed were “so simple, so obvious. It beggars belief that the university has spent the last four years arguing that they were not required to make them”.

Mrs Abrahart said she felt the university was still not listening and called for it to apologise. “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.”

The court heard that in the months before her death, there was a “significant deterioration in her mental health”. In February 2018 she emailed one university employee, saying: “I’ve been having suicidal thoughts and to a certain degree attempted it.”

Abrahart’s parents stressed they are not blaming individual staff. Her mother said: “We do however blame the university as an institution. We blame the university for not training its staff properly in its duties towards disabled students and on when they could and should share information internally about students who are at risk of suicide. We blame the university for the role it played in our daughter’s death.”

The university has argued that it had tried to offer Abrahart alternatives to the oral presentation. But the judge observed that, “whilst a few ideas” regarding possible adjustments were “floated” by the university, “none were implemented”.

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “Our whole university community has been deeply affected by Natasha’s tragic death. We believe staff in the school of physics worked incredibly hard and diligently to support Natasha 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.

“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 jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

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