University of Bristol breached legal duties owed to student who committed suicide
A senior judge has found the University of Bristol liable for multiple breaches of legal duties it owed to undergraduate student Natasha Abrahart in the lead up to her suicide on 30 April 2018.
Ms Abrahart’s body was found in her private flat on the day she was due to give a presentation to fellow University of Bristol 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 her account saying “I’ve been having suicidal thoughts and to a certain degree attempted it”.
Her parents, Robert and Margaret Abrahart, aged 66 and 60, filed court documents challenging the university’s role in their daughter’s death.
The trial was heard over five days in March 2022 during which the university denied breaching any duties to Ms Abrahart.
The family’s lawyers argued that the university breached the Equality Act 2010 when it failed to adjust its regime of oral assessments in light of Ms Abrahart’s social anxiety disorder. These breaches, the family’s lawyers argued, caused a deterioration in the young woman’s mental health leading to her death.
In a 46-page written judgment issued at Bristol County Court, His Honour Judge Alex Ralton found that the university had: breached its duties to make reasonable adjustments to the way it assessed Ms Abrahart; engaged in indirect disability discrimination against her; and treated her unfavourably because of the consequences of her disability. He found that these breaches led to her death, noting that “it was accepted by the medical experts that the primary stressor and cause of Natasha’s depressive illness was oral assessment”.
At the conclusion of the trial the university accepted that its assessment methods had made a material contribution to Ms Abrahart’s death but denied that it was required to modify those assessments for her as “an ability to explain and justify experimental work orally is a core competency of a professional scientist”. This defence was rejected by Judge Ralton, who found: “It is obvious to me that the fundamental purpose of the assessments was to elicit from Natasha answers to questions put to her following the experiments and it is a statement of the obvious that such a process does not automatically require face to face oral interaction and there are other ways of achieving the same.”
The judge found that adjustments, such as removing the need for oral assessments altogether or, in relation to the conference on 30 April 2018, assessing Ms Abrahart in the absence of her peers or using a smaller venue, were reasonable and should have been put in place. He observed that “whilst a few ideas” regarding possible adjustments were “floated” by the university “none were implemented”.
After finding that Ms Abrahart’s suffering was “serious and, from what I have seen in the evidence, continuous” the judge ordered the university to pay damages of £50,518. This reflected the injury to Ms Abrahart’s feelings, the deterioration in her mental health caused by the university, and funeral costs.
Robert Abrahart, a retired university lecturer, said on Friday: “Today, 1,481 days after Natasha took her own life on the day of an assessment she simply couldn’t do, after years of protestations from the university that it did all it could to support her, after having battled our way through an inquest and a civil trial, we finally have the truth: the University of Bristol broke the law and exposed our daughter to months of wholly unnecessary psychological trauma, as she watched her grades plummet, and her hopes for the future crumble before her eyes.”
Margaret Abrahart, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, said: “We really hope that the University of Bristol will finally take its head out of the sand and recognise that now is the time for change. We are ready to work with them to help ensure that the failings which led to Natasha’s death aren’t repeated so other families don’t have to suffer as we have suffered. We hope they will apologise for the role they played in Natasha’s death and will take us up on our offer of help.”