The high court is to consider for the first time whether universities owe a legal duty of care to their students, which campaigners argue would save lives and bring England and Wales in line with other countries.
The landmark hearing next month comes at a time of widespread concern about declining student mental health and a number of widely reported suicides, including that of Natasha Abrahart, 20, who was a second year physics student at Bristol University when she killed herself in 2018.
Bereaved families, including Natasha’s parents, Robert and Margaret Abrahart, argue a statutory duty of care would oblige university staff to exercise reasonable care and avoid acts that could foreseeably cause students harm.
In May last year, the Abraharts successfully sued Bristol University under the Equality Act for not taking reasonable care of their daughter’s wellbeing, health and safety. Natasha, who had chronic social anxiety, took her own life a day before she was due to give an oral exam in front of teachers and fellow students.
The Abraharts were awarded £50,000 in damages by the county court and have been granted permission by the high court to appeal against a separate finding that the university did not owe their daughter a legal duty of care under the law of negligence. The three-day hearing, which is due to start on 11 December in Bristol, will also consider an appeal by Bristol University against the earlier finding that it breached the Equality Act.
In a separate move, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has been granted permission to intervene in what it described as a “landmark legal case” that could have far-reaching implications.
A University of Bristol spokesperson said the circumstances of Natasha’s death were not disputed. “In appealing, we are seeking absolute clarity for the higher education sector around the application of the Equality Act when staff do not know a student has a disability, or when it has yet to be diagnosed.
“We hope it will also enable us to provide transparency to students and their families about how we support them and to give all university staff across the country the confidence to do that properly.”
The legal duty of care issue was debated in Westminster this year after parents and supporters gathered more than 128,000 signatures in a parliamentary petition calling for its introduction. At the end, however, the government said it had no plans for new legislation.
Robert Abrahart, a retired university lecturer from Nottingham, said: “Like many other parents we were appalled to learn that universities don’t already owe a legal duty to exercise reasonable care and skill in the way they treat their students. We are delighted that the high court has agreed to consider whether such a duty should now be imposed. If this happens it will not only save lives but it will bring universities in England and Wales into line with their counterparts in Australia and the USA.”
Margaret Abrahart, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, added: “We need something positive to come from the nightmare of Natasha’s death. We have petitioned parliament, we’ve spoken with political parties, and now we’re trying to do what we can through the courts. We don’t expect universities to treat students like children and don’t think lecturers should have parental responsibility. We just want to see a common sense legal duty on universities to take reasonable steps not to harm their students.”
Bristol University said its staff helped Natasha with a referral to both the NHS and the university’s disability services, and suggested alternative options for her academic assessment to alleviate her anxiety. “However the judgment suggests they should have gone further than this, although Natasha’s mental health difficulties had not been diagnosed. Understandably, this has caused considerable anxiety as it puts a major additional burden on staff who are primarily educators, not healthcare professionals,” the spokesperson said.
“Collectively, we are deeply concerned by the increase of mental health issues amongst our young people nationally and are determined to do our very best to support any student who is struggling with their mental health through the provision of a wide range of services. At the same time, it is important that students and their families are clear on what universities can and cannot do, and that students receive appropriate specialist care under the NHS should they need it.”
Universities UK, which speaks on behalf of more than 140 institutions, said in an earlier briefing that universities already had a general duty of care to their students not to cause harm by careless acts or omissions. “We do not believe a further statutory duty would be the best approach to improve outcomes for students.”