Questions raised over universities’ ‘duty of care’ after student suicides

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Last month we read about a family taking the University of Bristol to court after their daughter, who was suffering from severe anxiety, took her own life.

Natasha Abrahart, a 20-year-old physics undergraduate, was found dead at her flat in 2018, a day before she was due to make a public presentation to around 50 staff and students. She had been diagnosed with chronic social anxiety disorder two months before she died and was described as ‘hard working and high achieving’.

She had started to struggle in her second year at the university experiencing anxiety and panic attacks in relation to the oral assessments she was required to take as part of her course.

Did the University fail to make ‘reasonable’ allowances?

Natasha’s parents, Robert and Margaret Abrahart, have launched a landmark civil case, under the Equality Act for not taking reasonable care of their daughter’s “wellbeing, health and safety.”

In February 2018, Natasha had emailed a university employee and admitted that she was having suicidal thoughts.

Robert and Margaret Abrahart argue the university did not do enough to help Natasha and played a “direct role in her death” because staff knew about her mental health condition. They allege their daughter was a victim of discrimination as a disabled student.

Jamie Burton QC from Doughty Street Chambers, who is representing the family, said the university could have made “several reasonable adjustments” for Natasha, such as replacing her presentation with a written assessment, examining her laboratory notebooks, or providing written questions in advance.

What are universities’ duty of care to students?

The duty of care that universities owe to their students is not always easy to define, but they must take reasonable steps to protect students from foreseeable mental and physical harm.

In the Department for Education’s Covid Guidance for Higher Education, the DfE states that higher education providers “have a duty of care to students when delivering services, including the provision of pastoral support, and taking steps to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of students. This includes responsibility to support students with mental health issues”.

In Natasha’s case, her parents are not alleging that any member of staff breached their duty of care to her, noting that many had tried to help her.

The university is defending the claim in full, including a denial that it owed Natasha any relevant legal duty of care.

An inquest into Natasha’s death in May 2019 concluded she had killed herself partly because of a “gross failure” to provide care by Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership Trust. However, the senior coroner for Avon, Maria Voisin, ruled the adequacy of support provided to Natasha by the university was outside the scope of the inquest.

Tragically, Natasha was one of 11 University of Bristol students to kill themselves between 2016 and 2018.

How Novum Law can help

Novum Law medical negligence lawyer, Mary Smith who specialises in inquests and public inquiries, and is currently helping several families that have lost loved ones to suicide while at university, says:

“Natasha’s death is incredibly sad, and my heart goes out to her family. As parents we want to protect our children and keep them safe and when things like this happen, it is absolutely devastating.

“It can be difficult for parents to recognise the signs of mental ill health in children and young people. And when the worst happens, there is always the anguish about whether they could have done more to prevent their child’s death.

“In Natasha’s case, it’s especially hard as her mental health difficulties were known to the university and the authorities, and they believe adjustments could have been made for their daughter that would have made a difference to her wellbeing.

“Suicides at universities are not only devastating for family and friends but have a profound impact on the student population and staff members. 

“There have been several student suicides at a number of UK universities in recent years, raising serious questions about universities’ duty of care to students. It is vital that crucial lessons are learned from these tragic deaths to understand more about student suicide and mitigate risk.”

Novum Law’s specialist medical negligence team has extensive experience in mental health care issues and claims in relation to community care and mental health services. Our knowledgeable and professional team are here to help and support bereaved families with compassion and care.

We provide specialist legal support nationwide across England and Wales. To book a free, no obligation chat with us, call 0800 884 0777, email or complete our online enquiry form.

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