7 October 2022

Press release by Irwin Mitchell

  • Natasha Abrahart’s Parents Among Group of 25 Bereaved Families Behind Parliamentary Petition for ‘Statute for Student Safety’
  • Campaigners Want Universities to Owe a Statutory Duty Of Care to Students

The parents of a vulnerable student who took her life after a university discriminated against her are demanding the Government introduce new laws to protect undergraduates.

Margaret and Robert Abrahart have joined with others to launch a parliamentary petition calling on ministers to establish legislation to better protect students. They say universities should owe a legal duty to exercise reasonable care and skill when teaching students and providing support services.

The couple, from Nottingham, are among 25 bereaved families, who have come together and set up ‘The LEARN Network’. Today marks the official launch of their Statute for Student Safety campaign. They believe that many student suicides are preventable and higher education institutions should do more to keep students safe.

The call comes after a judge ruled earlier this year that the University of Bristol 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 treated Natasha on account of her social anxiety disorder.  The judge 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.  However, he was not prepared to find that the university owed Natasha a more general duty to take reasonable steps to avoid causing her psychiatric injury and harm. 

Margaret and Robert Abrahart now say that the lack of a duty of care independent of the Equality Act limits the legal protections for students.

Margaret, 60, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, said: “While Natasha’s needless death will always remain a tragic waste of life and something we’ll never overcome, we’ve always been steadfast in our determination not to let it be totally in vain.

“We were able to win our case, and to get some justice for Natasha, because she was a disabled person as defined by the Equality Act.  However, the lack of a more general duty of care means that many other students are still at risk and need to be protected. Families are also likely to find it very difficult to get justice if the student in question is not disabled.  That just doesn’t seem right.”

Robert, 66, a retired university lecturer, added: “Although the judge in our case found that the University caused Natasha’s death by discriminating against her, he said he couldn’t find that the University was negligent because it didn’t owe Natasha a ‘common law duty of care’.  This is liable to create confusion amongst students, universities and parents.  There needs to be greater clarity on the duties universities owe to all students, particularly when providing support for mental health problems. 

“This is not just about ‘picking up the pieces’ after something goes wrong. It is about acting with reasonable care and skill from the very start. Providing support to students when they become unwell is obviously important, but it is equally important to ensure that you avoid causing unnecessary distress, and do what is required to help prevent students from becoming unwell in the first place.

“We’ve repeatedly called on the University of Bristol to sit down with us, to learn from what happened to Natasha, and put in place the changes they need to make in order to keep students like her safe. But nobody seems to be listening, and our offer still hasn’t been taken up. We believe what happened to Natasha wasn’t an isolated incident and too many families with loved ones at universities across the country are being failed.

“Given the current situation we feel the only way to improve student safety is for there to be clear laws and practices in place which universities need to be measured against. We believe this will ensure universities are upholding their moral duty to protect students, many of whom are hundreds of miles away from home for the first time.”

Natasha had been diagnosed with chronic Social Anxiety Disorder in February 2018. She took her life aged 20 on 30 April, 2018, the day she was due to give a presentation to fellow University of Bristol students and staff in a 329-seat lecture theatre.   

In May His Honour Judge Alex Ralton, found the university had: breached its duties under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments to the way it assessed Natasha; engaged in indirect disability discrimination against Natasha; and treated Natasha unfavourably because of the consequences of her disability.  

He found that these breaches caused her death.

Gus Silverman a human rights lawyer who represented Robert and Margaret, as well as the families of other students who have taken their lives, said:

“The judgment in Natasha’s case highlighted the lack of legal protections for students who don’t benefit from the Equality Act.  As the law presently stands it is difficult to hold a university legally accountable where it has caused a student harm by behaving unreasonably, unless the student was disabled and the claim meets the Equality Act’s procedural requirements. 

Although each case must be judged on its individual merits, the absence of a legal duty independent of the Equality Act will very likely prevent some students and their families from accessing justice.” 


Notes to Editors

For further information, pictures and interview requests please contact the Irwin Mitchell press office on 0114 274 4666.

Go to: www.thelearnnetwork.org.uk/statute-for-student-safety.html