High Court Dismisses University of Bristol’s Appeal in Natasha Abrahart Case

The High Court has rejected the University of Bristol’s appeal against an earlier judgment that it contributed to the death of a student by discriminating against her.

Natasha Abrahart took her own life on 30 April 2018, the day that she was due to give a presentation to fellow students and staff in a 329-seat lecture theatre. The second-year physics student, originally from Nottingham, had been diagnosed with chronic Social Anxiety Disorder in February 2018. She was at least the tenth student at the University of Bristol to take their own life since October 2016.

The 20-year-old had been a high-achieving student until her second year at university. In October 2017 academic staff became aware that she was struggling and was experiencing anxiety and panic attacks in relation to oral assessments that formed part of a laboratory module. In February 2018 a university employee received an email from Natasha’s account saying “I’ve been having suicidal thoughts and to a certain degree attempted it”.

Natasha’s father, Dr Robert Abrahart, brought a legal action against the University alleging it had contributed to his daughter’s death by discriminating against her on the grounds of disability contrary to the Equality Act 2010, and by breaching a duty of care owed her under the law of negligence.

In May 2022 a senior County Court Judge, Alex Ralton, ruled that the University discriminated against Natasha as alleged by Dr Abrahart, and that this contributed to her death. Judge Ralton found that the University had: breached its duty 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.

After finding that Natasha’s suffering was “serious and, from what I have seen in the evidence, continuous” Judge Ralton ordered the University to pay damages of £50,518. This reflected the injury to Natasha’s feelings, the deterioration in her mental health caused by the University, and funeral costs.

Today, in a 62-page judgment, Mr Justice Linden found that the University had failed on all seven of its grounds of appeal, concluding that:

  • Judge Ralton had been entitled to find that “the fundamental purpose of the oral assessments was to elicit answers to questions put to the student and that such a process does not automatically require face to face oral interaction: there were other ways of achieving this”. The University therefore failed in its argument that “the assessment of a student’s ability to explain laboratory work orally, to defend it and to answer questions on it” was “a core competency of a professional scientist” and so not subject to the duty to make reasonable adjustments.
  • Natasha “was … very much under pressure to attend the interviews and the presentation [on the day of her death]”.
  • There was “never a suggestion by the University that Ms Abrahart did not genuinely have issues with her mental health or was anything other than genuinely unable to cope with the oral assessments.
  • There was “nothing surprising” in the finding that once Natasha was unable to follow the University’s procedures for requesting adjustments to assessments “the University seemed to stall in its consideration of reasonable adjustments [to the oral assessments]”.
  • The University’s arguments that it could only make adjustments to the oral assessments following “due process” did not provide “cogent reasons for its failure to make adjustments.” Furthermore, the “problem with the University’s reliance on its own Regulations and policies… was that they are not the law. They were subject to the law, including the requirements of the Equality Act 2010.
  • There was “no reason why” the one member of University staff who was aware of Natasha’s “self-harm and attempted suicide” could not have sought her consent to disclose this to other members of staff, and there was “no evidence to suggest” that Natasha “would have withheld it.” Furthermore, there “clearly was a need” for that staff member “to draw the attention of key people to the seriousness of Ms Abrahart’s situation, with or without her consent, and for immediate action to be taken to remove the pressure of the forthcoming laboratory interviews and conference from her shoulders.

Having dismissed the University’s appeal, and therefore upholding Dr Abrahart’s claim, Mr Justice Linden concluded that it was “not necessary” for him to “express any view, one way or the other” in relation to Dr Abrahart’s cross appeal against Judge Ralton’s finding that it would not be “fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care [on the University] to Natasha [in negligence] because, as a disabled student … she is afforded protection by the Equality Act 2010”. Mr Justice Linden also considered it would not “be wise for me to express a view for various reasons” including that the “issue is one of potentially wide application and significance. Determining it would increase the risk of prolonging this litigation, which I regard as undesirable.

Robert Abrahart, a retired university lecturer, said: “It has been a long and painful journey to reach this point, and the University of Bristol has fought us every step of the way. The result is that we now have a judgment from the High Court confirming what we always knew to be true. The University of Bristol failed our daughter, broke the law, and contributed to her death. Their arguments that they did not know enough about Natasha’s problems, or that they hadn’t received the right paperwork, or that fairness to other students meant they couldn’t make the adjustments she needed, have now all failed for a second time. It is now for the University of Bristol, and higher education institutions across the country, to get their houses in order.

Margaret Abrahart, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, said: “We have been able to get some measure of justice for Natasha because she was disabled and therefore covered by the Equality Act. But what about students who aren’t disabled? They need a statutory duty of care. 128,000 people signed a petition calling for a statutory duty requiring universities to act with reasonable care and skill to avoid harming students, but the Government kicked the issue into the long grass. Do Keir Starmer, Rishi Sunak, and the other party leaders really think universities should be allowed to cause harm to their students by acting without reasonable care and skill? If they don’t, then they should prove it. Put a statutory duty of care for universities in your manifestos, or explain to the voters why you think that some students should be protected while others are not.”

Gus Silverman, a solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn representing the family, said: “So far as we are aware this is the first time the High Court has considered arguments that disability discrimination has contributed to a person’s death. Upholding the finding that Natasha’s death was linked to this kind of unlawful treatment therefore establishes a powerful legal precedent. It is also a reminder that universities cannot shirk their duties to make reasonable adjustments to potentially discriminatory policies on the grounds that a disabled student has not followed a particular bureaucratic process. As Mr Justice Linden has found, ‘what a disabled person says and/or does is evidence’ that can, and in some circumstances must, prompt urgent action to avoid discrimination from taking place.

Summary of the evidence

Natasha Abrahart was born on 8 November 1997 in Greater Manchester where she lived until shortly before her fourth birthday. She was the older of two children, and from the age of four she grew up in Greater Nottingham. She was shy from a young age but did well at school and developed a close circle of friends. She did well in her GCSE and A-Levels and, in September 2016, enrolled on the University of Bristol’s four-year MSci in Physics. She passed her first year with good marks.

In her second year Natasha was required to take the University’s ‘Practical Physics 203’ module. This was assessed partly by way of two forms of oral assessment: five post-laboratory interviews, each following the completion of a practical experiment, and a laboratory conference presentation to other students and academics.

Rajan Palan, Natasha’s second year flatmate and a fellow physics student, told the County Court “The Physics course wasn’t short of introverted and shy individuals … but Natasha was by far the most socially anxious person on the course. In fact, I would say she was the most socially anxious person I have ever met. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being highly sociable and 10 being extremely awkward, in most social situations I would say Natasha was an 11”.

On 24 October 2017 Natasha attended her first post-laboratory interview. She did not answer any of the questions and left partway through. She later attended a rescheduled interview but university records state she “did not do well”.

Natasha missed her second scheduled interview on 28 November 2017, despite having been seen in the laboratory earlier that day. A mark of 0 out of 100 was entered onto her student record.

On 5 December 2017 Natasha met with the Senior Tutor in the School of Physics, Dr Adrian Barnes. In a record read to the County Court Dr Barnes observed “She does have a problem with what looks like panic and anxiety issues with the interview assessment format”. He asked Natasha to see her GP or the Student Counselling Service to see whether they could diagnose “particular issues and then to see if we can get a DSS [a Disability Support Summary] (if necessary)”.

On 30 January 2018 Natasha missed her third scheduled interview and was again assigned a mark of 0 out of 100. The County Court heard that these marks would have been available for Natasha to view online.

On 13 February 2018 Natasha met with Dr Barnes again. He recalled she was still very nervous and difficult to talk to. Dr Barnes noted “This does seem to be a genuine case of some form of social anxiety”. After the meeting Dr Barnes emailed the University’s Disability Services asking them to contact Natasha. He explained: “Natasha is struggling to attend the assessment interviews in our second year laboratory. She has good attendance in the laboratory overall but has been absent on the days when the assessments are due to take place. We have discussed this with her and stressed the importance of completing the assessment if she wishes to pass the unit.” He said that in terms of the laboratory interviews the School of Physics was willing “to consider modified or alternative forms of assessment but without any recommendations it is difficult to see what reasonable adjustments we can make”.

On 14 February 2018 a Disability Services receptionist emailed Natasha and asked her to book an appointment. Natasha did not reply and no one from Disability Services contacted her again.

On 16 February 2018 a Student Administration Manager at the School of Physics, Barbara Perks, relayed information provided by Mr Palan to the University’s Student Wellbeing Service, which noted that Natasha “suffers from social anxiety”, had been self-harming by cutting herself, and “has been accessing support from her senior tutor, but Barbara feels this is not enough.” The Student Wellbeing Service did not make contact with Natasha at any point.

On 19 February 2018 Natasha told Mr Palan that she had written a suicide note and had put her head in a noose.

In the early hours of 20 February 2018 Mr Palan sent an email to Ms Perks from Natasha’s account and with her consent, saying “the past few days have been really hard, I’ve been having suicidal thoughts and to a certain degree have attempted it”.

Later that morning Ms Perks went with Natasha and Mr Palan to the University’s GP service. The GP assessed Natasha as being in a state of acute distress, was at high risk of ending her life, and referred her to mental health services.

On 24 February 2018 Natasha completed online mental health tests, which indicated she was suffering from “severe depression” and “very severe social phobia”.

On 26 February 2018 Natasha suffered a panic attack and attempted to asphyxiate herself.

On 27 February 2018 Natasha failed to attend her fourth scheduled laboratory interview. She was given 0 marks out of 100 and two penalty points.

On 6 March 2018 Ms Perks emailed the Student Wellbeing Service, stating: “I have concerns that some of the course will be difficult for her to do … she finds it impossible to answer questions on her lab work, for example, and will be part of a group doing presentations at the end of the year. I suggested that she might think about alternatives if they would help, such as working to a pre-prepared script, or in the research done by the group rather than on stage.” The Judge found that none of these potential adjustments were implemented.

On 20 March 2018 Mr Palan interrupted Natasha during a serious attempt to end her life . He contacted Natasha’s parents that night. Mrs Abrahart spoke with Natasha over the phone who assured her that she was safe and that she would make an urgent GP appointment the next day. Mrs Abrahart told the County Court “I was very concerned that I should not do anything which could potentially make things worse for Natasha, by trying to force her to talk about things she didn’t want to discuss with me over the phone. Looking back on it I also think I was just so shocked and confused by what had happened. It was such a contrast between how Natasha had been when I last saw her. It just didn’t make any sense. Part of me might have wanted to believe that Rajan was overreacting and had got the wrong end of the stick somehow.

Natasha’s parents planned to collect her after her GP appointment the following day but in the end agreed to let her stay in Bristol a little longer so that she could be properly assessed by a local mental health specialist. When a crisis team visited Natasha’s flat on 22 March 2018 they spoke with her boyfriend and noted “she is under stress from the University. There is a module which is assessed in an interview format which she finds very difficult”.

On 24 March 2018 Natasha was collected by her mother and driven back to the family home in Nottingham, where she remained for the Easter holidays. During the holiday Natasha wouldn’t tell her parents what had been behind her suicidal behaviour and insisted on returning to Bristol for the new term. Mrs Abrahart told the County Court: “I felt uncomfortable leaving Natasha in Bristol [on 15 April 2018] but I wasn’t sure what else I could do. I told Natasha that Bob and I would be happy to come down and help in any way we could but also that we wouldn’t hassle her if she wanted privacy. Bob and I felt reassured by the fact that Natasha was living with Rajan, who was in the room next to her, and seemed to know more about what she was going through than we did. We believed she was talking to the university about her difficulties … We were also reassured by the fact that Natasha’s problems were already known by her GP and she had an upcoming appointment.”

On 26 April 2018 Natasha attended her fifth scheduled post-laboratory interview but only scored 8 of out 20, the same mark as when she had left the first interview partway through.

On 27 April 2018 Ms Perks discussed the forthcoming laboratory conference presentation with Natasha. In her statement Ms Perks said she had told Natasha that “she would not have to talk at the presentation if she did not want to or feel able to, as long as her contribution to the group was clear”. Ms Perks also told the County Court that Natasha had indicated that she wanted to participate in the delivery of her group’s presentation. However, in a statement to the inquest into Natasha’s death the Unit Director for Practical Physics 203, Dr Chris Bell, said “No changes were made to the form of assessment as there had been no request to do so either by Ms Abrahart or under a Disability Support Summary

At around 2.30pm on 30 April 2018, shortly after Natasha’s laboratory conference presentation session was due to start, Mr Palan found she had locked herself in her room and was unresponsive. He called the emergency services, who forced entry into Natasha’s room and found her dead.

Notes apparently written by Natasha and found in her room after her death refer to her being afraid of talking to people, afraid of embarrassing herself, “saying the wrong thing/ panicking”, and being “afraid of interviews, networking [and] talking to people in a professional environment.”

The County Court heard that as at 30 April 2018 Natasha’s marks for Practical Physics 203 were only 27.4%. This meant that, if she was unable to participate in the laboratory conference presentation, there was a very strong prospect she would fail the module and would not have been allowed to remain on her MSci course. Mrs Abrahart told the County Court that her daughter “would have considered it a huge failure if she had to move from the MSci to the BSc because her grades weren’t good enough”.

Dr Sally Braithwaite, a consultant psychiatrist instructed by Natasha’s parents to review the case told the County Court:

… the format of this mandatory conference in the unmodified state to be held in a large lecture hall venue with an oral presentation required to be given in front of 43 other students as well as 2 members of staff which in my view would have been overwhelming for Ms Abrahart and, I believe, for any other sufferer of Social Anxiety Disorder. Ms Abrahart was also due to be the second to last presentation of that day and she would have had further additional time that day to have suffered growing anticipatory anxiety leading up to the conference assessment which would have been increasingly distressing and overwhelming for her. In my opinion, Ms Abrahart would have also been intensely fearful about her past repeated attempts and failures at less intimidating forms of oral assessments in the past (the post laboratory interview assessments). … The events planned for the conference on 30th April 2018 were highly significant in my view in exacerbating Ms Abrahart’s condition and in turn her eventual suicide that day.”

The inquest

An inquest into Natasha’s death was heard before the Senior Coroner for Avon between 7 and 16 May 2019, and found the cause of death to be suicide contributed to by neglect on the part of the Avon and Wiltshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. The Coroner had earlier ruled that the adequacy of support provided to Natasha by the University of Bristol was outside of the scope of her inquest.

Settlement against the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust

In May 2019 Natasha’s family settled claims against the mental health trust. The Trust admitted that it missed opportunities to provide Natasha with “an enhanced and more assertive level of care” but denied causing her death.

Notes for editors:

1. A copy of the judgment can be requested from bristoladmin@dpglaw.co.uk.

2. Natasha Abrahart’s family are represented by Gus Silverman and Pragnya Iovine of Deighton Pierce Glynn solicitors, and by Jamie Burton KC and Sarah Steinhardt of Doughty Street Chambers. They were represented at the inquest into Natasha’s death by Gus Silverman and Tom Stoate of Doughty Street Chambers, and were supported during the inquest by the charity INQUEST.

3. Gus Silverman joined Deighton Pierce Glynn in September 2023 from Irwin Mitchell where he previously represented the Abraharts.

4. The County Court judgment in Abrahart v University of Bristol can be found here.

5. A press release regarding the County Court’s judgment in Abrahart v University of Bristol can be found here.

6. Press releases regarding the campaign for Parliament to introduce a statutory duty of care owed by universities to students are available here  and here.

7. A Note prepared for parliamentarians by the Abraharts’ legal team regarding a potential duty of care owed by universities to students can be found here.

8. A press release issued shortly before the High Court heard the appeal can be found here.

9. A press release issued by the EHRC regarding its intervention in the appeal can be found here.

10. Request for photographs, interviews and further information should be directed to bristoladmin@dpglaw.co.uk.

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