20 Nov Landmark High Court Hearing Set To Decide Whether Universities Owe Duty Of Care To Students
The High Court has ruled that it will consider, for the first time, whether universities owe a legal duty not to damage the mental health of their students. In a separate development, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has been granted permission to intervene in what it described as this “landmark legal case” which could “have far-reaching implications”.
In May 2022 a senior County Court judge found that 20-year-old physics student Natasha Abrahart had taken her own life as the result of multiple breaches of the Equality Act 2010 by the University of Bristol amounting to disability discrimination. The breaches related to the requirement that Natasha, who had been diagnosed with chronic social anxiety disorder, had to take part in oral assessments. Her body was found in her flat on the day she was due to give a presentation to fellow students and staff in a large lecture theatre.
Despite ordering the University of Bristol to pay over £50,000 in damages for its breaches of the Equality Act, His Honour Judge Alex Ralton at the Bristol County Court decided it would not be “fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care” owed by the University to Natasha under the law of negligence because “first, and perhaps foremost …. as a disabled student … she is afforded protection by the Equality Act”. The Judge said that if a ‘common law’ duty of care was owed then “There can be no doubt that the University would have been in breach; the main breach would be continuing to require Natasha to give interviews and attend the conference and marking her down if she did not participate when it knew that Natasha was unable to participate for reasons beyond her control.”
In March 2023 the University of Bristol was granted permission to appeal to the High Court against the finding that it had breached the Equality Act. Now the High Court has granted Natasha’s father, Dr Robert Abrahart, permission to appeal against the finding that the University did not owe his daughter a duty of care in negligence. Both issues will now be considered by Mr Justice Linden sitting in Bristol on 11, 12 and 13 December 2023.
On 10 November 2023 the Honourable Mr Justice Linden granted Dr Abrahart’s application, finding that the “appeal seems to me to have a real prospect of success.” The judge also said there were “compelling reasons why the issue in relation to duty of care should be considered alongside the issues in relation to disability discrimination.” The order followed an earlier decision to grant the equalities watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, permission to intervene in the case.
In October 2022 a group of bereaved parents, including Natasha’s mother and father, launched a parliamentary petition calling on ministers to impose a statutory duty of care on universities to exercise reasonable care and skill when teaching students and providing support services. The petition gained over 128,000 signatures and was debated in Parliament in June 2023, although the Government has so far declined to introduce legislation.
Last month a judge at the Central London County Court ruled that the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (part of the University of South Wales) owed a duty of care to take “reasonable protective, supportive, investigatory and, when appropriate, disciplinary action” following allegations of sexual abuse made by two female students against another student.
Dr Abrahart, 67, 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.”
Natasha’s mother, Margaret, 61, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, said: “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.”
Gus Silverman, of the law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn representing the Abraharts said: “This will be the first time that the High Court has considered whether a duty of care exists in these circumstances. The University of Bristol told the County Court that it didn’t owe any relevant duty to care for its students under the law of negligence. Now the High Court will consider, for the first time, whether that is correct. It will also be the first time that the High Court has considered a range of important issues under the Equality Act. These include how and when higher education institutions have to make reasonable adjustments to their standard practices so as to avoid discriminating against disabled students. The intervention of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is an indication of the significant wider issues raised by this case.”
Chairwoman of the EHRC, Baroness Kishwer Falkner said: “It is important we intervene in this significant and tragic case. As experts in equality law, we have followed proceedings closely due to their relevance to a variety of equality issues and potential to have far-reaching implications. Our intervention will ensure we can offer the court clear and impartial guidance on equality law, ultimately helping universities to understand their responsibilities under the Equality Act.”
Notes for editors:
- 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.
- Gus Silverman joined Deighton Pierce Glynn in September 2023 from Irwin Mitchell where he previously represented the Abraharts.
- A press release regarding the judgment in Abrahart v University of Bristol can be found here: https://www.irwinmitchell.com/news-and-insights/newsandmedia/2022/may/court-finds-discrimination-by-uni-of-bristol-led-to-death-of-vulnerable-student-natasha-abrahart
- The judgment in Abrahart v University of Bristol can be found here: https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Abrahart-v-Uni-Bristol-judgment-200522.pdf
- A press release issued by the EHRC can be found here: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/media-centre/news/equality-watchdog-intervene-landmark-legal-case
- 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: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/63c94f898fd79e0d32af714e/t/646b89f8f5293e7142d0ca8f/1684769273258/Note+regarding+duty+of+care+%28Doughty+Street+Chambers+and+Irwin+Mitchell%2C+15+May+2023%29.pdf
- Coverage of the decision in Feder & McCamish v Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/oct/05/welsh-college-failed-to-properly-investigate-sexual-abuse-claims-court-rules
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