University of Bristol loses appeal to overturn ruling that it contributed to student’s death

14 February 2024, 16:15

Natasha took her own life in April 2018.
Natasha took her own life in April 2018. Picture: Family handout

By Jenny Medlicott

The University of Bristol has lost a bid to overturn a ruling that it contributed to the death of a student by discriminating against her.

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Physics student Natasha Abrahart, 20, who suffered from chronic social anxiety disorder, took her own life in April 2018.

She had been due to give a presentation to a group of some 40 students in a 329-seat lecture on the day she was found dead.

In May 2022, her parents successfully sued her university, as Bristol Country Court found the institution had contributed to her death by discriminating against her on the grounds of disability.

It found that the university had breached its obligations under the Equalities Act to make “reasonable adjustments” for the 20-year-old and was ordered to pay more than £50,000 in damages and funeral costs.

But the university attempted to appeal the ruling on the basis that the judge was wrong to find that it knew, or should have known, enough about Ms Abrahart’s condition to make exceptions.

On Wednesday, the High Court dismissed the university's appeal as it upheld the original ruling. It also dismissed a claim that the university had been negligent.

The court heard that Ms Abrahart, who was in her second year of university, had previously attempted suicide in the winter term before her death and that staff were aware she had been struggling.

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Natasha was a student at the University of Bristol.
Natasha was a student at the University of Bristol. Picture: Family handout

Mr Justice Linden told the court on Wednesday that Natasha was “very much under pressure to attend the interviews at the presentation” on the day she died.

Speaking after the rule, Ms Abrahard’s father Robert 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."

Professor Evelyn Welch, vice chancellor and president of the University of Bristol, said following the ruling: "Natasha's death is a tragedy - I am deeply sorry for the Abrahart family's loss.

"At Bristol, we care profoundly for all our students, and their mental health and wellbeing is a priority and is at the heart of everything we do. We continue to develop and improve our services and safeguards to support our students who need help.

"In appealing, we were seeking clarity for the higher education sector around the application of the Equality Act when staff do not know a student has a disability, or when it has yet to be diagnosed. We will work with colleagues across the sector as we consider the judgment."

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