Student Mental Health: A University’s Duty of Care

Last month, the High Court dismissed the University of Bristol’s appeal against an earlier decision that it had contributed to the death of a student by discriminating against her and had breached its duties under the Equality Act 2010. Physics student, Natasha Abrahart, tragically took her own life in April 2018 on the day she was due to make a presentation to students and lecturers as part of her university course.


The claim against the university was brought by Natasha’s father who alleged 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 to her in negligence.

In her second year at the university, Natasha was required to take a module which was partly assessed by oral assessments – 5 post-laboratory interviews following a practical experiment and a conference presentation to other students and academics. During the year, it had become apparent to academic staff that her mental health was declining and that the oral presentations were causing her severe anxiety. She spoke about self-harm and it was apparent that she found it more difficult than other students to present in front of an audience. University staff exchanged multiple emails expressing concerns about Natasha. She was on an escalating course of distressing behaviour and there were two significant attempts at self-harm. Despite being made aware of the stress and anxiety caused to Natasha by the presentation aspects of her course and her diagnosis of depression and social anxiety disorder, she was not offered an alternative method of examination by the university. On the day of a laboratory conference on 30 April 2018 Natasha took her own life.

In May 2022, a County Court judge found that that the university had:-

  • breached its duty under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments to the way Natasha’s performance was assessed on the relevant module;
  • engaged in indirect disability and had treated Natasha unfavourably because of the consequences of her disability

and that these breaches had contributed to her death. The university was ordered to pay damages of £50,518.

Reasonable adjustments

Under Section 20 of the Equality Act 2010, an education institution is required to take reasonable steps to avoid a disabled person suffering a disadvantage because of its provision, criterion, or practice (“PCP”). Under Section 20(3) where a PCP puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with non-disabled persons, reasonable steps must be taken to avoid the disadvantage.

The sequence of questions required to be answered under Section 20(3) are as follows:-

(i) What is the PCP complained of?

(ii) Does it put a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in relation to a relevant matter in comparison with persons who are not disabled and, if so, what is the nature and extent of that disadvantage?

(iii) What are the steps which it is reasonable to take to avoid that disadvantage?

The reasonable steps need not avoid the disadvantage altogether. It can be reasonable to take steps which would reduce the disadvantage or where there was a real prospect that the adjustment would make a difference.

The appeal

The university’s appeal was unsuccessful.

There is a specific exception in the Equality Act 2010 which states that the reasonable adjustment duty does not apply in respect of a PCP which is the application of a “competence standard”: The university argued that it had no duty to adjust the oral presentation requirements of the relevant module because the ability to explain laboratory work orally and to answer questions on that work was a core competency of a professional scientist. It argued that a standard which measured a particular competence or ability could not be required to be adjusted in an individual case, even if the disabled person could not meet the standard because of their disability. The argument was rejected. The High Court held that the practice of students being assessed by way of the laboratory interviews and conference did not test proficiency in oral communication or presentation and 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”.

Also rejected was the university’ argument that, in fairness to other students, it could only adjust the assessment practice following “due process”. The appeal court did not accept that this provided “cogent reasons for its failure to make adjustments.” Indeed, it upheld the finding of the trial judge that “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.”

The High Court also accepted that the university had constructive knowledge of Natasha’s disability being long-term.

The High Court found that the refusal by the university to assess Natasha other than by way of the oral presentations put her at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to other students who did not have a disability. Consequently, a duty arose under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments and the university failed to discharge this duty.

In relation to the negligence aspect, the County Court rejected the negligence claim against the university because it was not satisfied that the university owed a duty of care to Natasha. On appeal, the High Court decided it was not necessary for it to consider whether there was a duty of care as the success of that claim did not give rise to additional compensation. Natasha’s parents are campaigning for a statutory duty on the part of higher education establishments to exercise reasonable care and skill when teaching and providing support services to students.

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