The parents of Bristol University student Natasha Abrahart have spoken in-depth about the death of their daughter – and how the University of Bristol failed her, after a judge ruled the university had discriminated against her before her death.
The 20-year-old student was doing well on her physics course but developed Severe Social Anxiety Disorder. She took her own life in April 2018, and was found dead on the day she had been due to give a presentation to a large group of other students in a big lecture theatre – something she told tutors and counsellors she would not be able to do.
The judge in the case, a senior circuit court judge called Alex Ralton, found that the University of Bristol had breached disability discrimination laws multiple times in the way they dealt with Natasha and her disability. The university said the ruling set a precedent for the way universities across the country deal with students with mental health conditions, and the implications of that were so huge that they were considering appealing against the verdict.
Read more:Bristol University breached law in Natasha Abrahart suicide case, judge rules
Bosses at the university said ‘we do our very best to support any student who is struggling with their mental health and have a wide range of services available’.
After the judgement was issued, Natasha’s parents spoke at length about the case, how they believe Natasha was failed and why they took the University of Bristol to court. The judge ordered the university paid damages of £50,000, as well as, poignantly, several thousand pounds to cover the cost of Natasha’s funeral.
But Robert and Margaret Abrahart said their motivation was to hold the university to account and get them and other academic institutions to change the way they treat disabled students in the future. Dr Abrahart and Mrs Abrahart said they were baffled why the university couldn’t recognise it needed to make ‘simple adjustments’ to take into account Natasha’s condition, so that she was able to complete her course and show her work without having to stand up in front of people and say it out loud.
“The University of Bristol was liable for multiple and repeated breaches of the duties it owed to our wonderful daughter, Natasha Abrahart, under the Equality Act 2010,” Dr Abrahart said. “These breaches amounted to disability discrimination. In particular he found: that the University breached its duties to make reasonable adjustments to the way it assessed Natasha; the University engaged in indirect disability discrimination against Natasha; and the University treated Natasha unfavourably because of the consequences of her disability.
“He found that these breaches led to her death on the 30th of April 2018, noting that ‘it was accepted by the medical experts that the primary stressor and cause of Natasha’s depressive illness was oral assessment.’ 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.
“Natasha came to Bristol to study physics, the subject she loved,” said Dr Abrahart. “She was bright, she was diligent, and she was hardworking. In a document we found on her computer after her death she said: ‘I am planning to pursue physics because I love the idea of being able to understand (or at least notice) the rules that nature follows. It’s amazing that we are able to make accurate predictions based on mathematics, but it’s even more incredible when nature behaves in unusual, counterintuitive ways, such that we can’t immediately understand what’s going on.’ Natasha would have made an excellent physicist if only the University of Bristol hadn’t discriminated against her,” added Dr Abrahart, a retired university lecturer.
“Natasha had always been a shy girl but by the time of her second year at Bristol this had developed into severe Social Anxiety Disorder, a condition which the court found rendered her disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act. Social Anxiety Disorder is one of the most common anxiety disorders. In Natasha’s case it meant that she struggled to speak with people she didn’t know, particularly people in positions of authority, and in situations where she thought she would be judged on what she said. It was only after Natasha’s death that we fully appreciated just how bad this issue had become and how poorly the University had responded to her needs.
“Although Natasha did very well in her written work, and passed her first year with flying colours, she hit a brick wall when it came to the University’s inflexible policy of oral assessments in the second year. Expecting Natasha to take part in oral assessments was like expecting a student in a wheelchair to take an exam in a room at the top of a long flight of stairs.
“To use the legal jargon that we’ve had to become familiar with, the University’s insistence on oral assessments put Natasha at a ‘substantial disadvantage’ in comparison to other students who did not share her disability. Natasha’s disability meant that she ran out of post-laboratory interviews, or did poorly in them, or failed to attend them at all. And for that, she was, in effect, punished. The University awarded her zero marks for many of these assessments and in some instances issued her with penalties. As a result our bright, capable daughter faced failing academically for the first time in her life.
“Finally, on the 30th of April 2018, she was expected to contribute to a group presentation, held in front of 43 fellow students and two academic markers, in a 329-seat lecture theatre. It would have been a truly terrifying prospect and she already had a very fragile state of mental health having told the university, in February 2018, that she was feeling suicidal and ‘to a certain degree have attempted it’. Instead of attending that session, she took her own life,” he said.
“The adjustments that Natasha needed to succeed on her course were so simple, so obvious, it beggars belief that the University has spent the last four years arguing that they were not required to make them.
“The adjustments which the court has found the University should have made included: removing the need for oral assessments altogether or, in relation to the conference on the 30th of April 2018, assessing Natasha in the absence of her peers or using a smaller venue. The University put forward many reasons why it was not required to make these adjustments: they said that Natasha needed to go and speak with the right department; they said they needed a form completed; they said they needed a doctor’s letter; and they said that, in essence, it isn’t possible to be a physicist without giving oral presentations. Each of these defences failed at trial,” he added.
Mrs Abrahart, herself a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, said they don’t blame the individual members of staff at the University of Bristol who had dealt with Natasha, but the university institution itself, for being failing Natasha.
“It must again be emphasised, that we do not seek to blame any individual member of staff. It is clear that some of them have been deeply affected by Natasha’s death and obviously no member of staff wanted her to come to harm. We do however blame the University as an institution.
“We blame the University for not training its staff properly in its duties towards disabled students and on when they could and should share information internally about students who are at risk of suicide.
“We blame the University for maintaining a system, which was so inflexible, that it exposed our daughter to suffering which the judge described as ‘serious and, from what I have seen in the evidence, continuous’. We blame the University for arguing that there was no “legal or factual basis for intensive scrutiny” of its role in Natasha’s death at the inquest and for accusing us of pursuing “spurious claims”. And we blame the University for the role it played in our daughter’s death.
“There has been lots of discussion during this case about the duty of care which universities owe to their students. The concept of a duty of care relates specifically to the law of negligence and not the Equality Act. During the trial the university agreed with the judge’s characterisation of its defence that, whilst it cares for its students, it is not legally required to care.
“Ultimately the judge found, because Natasha was protected by the Equality Act, he was not minded to impose a duty of care in negligence in Natasha’s case, although he found that if such a duty did apply then ‘there can be no doubt that the University would have been in breach’. So the University was wrong. It was legally required to care, and the source of that requirement in Natasha’s case was the Equality Act.
“We have been asked whether we think the University of Bristol has changed since Natasha died. How can it have changed when it doesn’t accept it did anything wrong? Even during the trial the head of the University’s Disability Services said that they would only ‘reluctantly’ support a disabled student where their disability meant that they had to communicate via an intermediary.
“The only even vaguely relevant change that the University has been able to point to is that its Disability Services will now send a student two emails, rather than one, before giving up on a referral,” Mrs Abrahart said. “That is not a meaningful change. We are deeply concerned that the University still does not understand the issue of disability, let alone its duties to disabled students, including those students disabled by way of mental illness, and the potential for causing harm to those students as a result,” she added.
The Abraharts said they are looking to the future now – and called on all universities to take this judgement seriously. The family’s legal team said it sets a huge precedent for the way universities have to abide by the Disability Discrimination Act in making adjustments for students who are disabled on the basis of a mental health diagnosis.
“What does this judgment mean for the world of Higher Education? It is a wake-up call,” said Mrs Abrahart.
“It is a clear statement that universities must carefully consider whether their existing policies and practices will put any disabled students at a substantial disadvantage. They need to consider how their methods of assessment will impact on each and every student including those with non-physical disabilities and or mental ill-health.
“Policies and practices that fail this test should be changed unless there is a very good reason for not doing so. If those changes aren’t made then universities should expect to be held liable for the consequences which, as our case sadly shows, can be utterly devastating.
“Now is the time for change. The University of Bristol has recently announced the appointment of its 14th Vice-Chancellor — Professor Evelyn Welch — who is due to start on the 1st of September 2022. Will she do what no one in the University has done for four years?” asked Mrs Abrahart. “Will she commit to learning the lessons from Natasha’s case? Will she meet with us so we can help her change the system within the University which still risks failing students so badly? And will she, or anyone else at the University, apologise for the part it played in Natasha’s death?” she added.
Since Natasha’s death, her parents have not only been challenging the University of Bristol on the specifics of her case, but also the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership which had been treating Natasha and, in a separate case, admitted its care had been inadequate. Natasha’s parents have also been lobbying across the university sector, and have joined with the families of other students who have taken their own lives at university. There are a lot – Natasha’s suicide in April 2018 was the tenth in just around 18 months at the University of Bristol alone.
Dr Abrahart and Mrs Abrahart have asked to meet with Chippenham MP Michelle Donelan, the Government minister responsible for universities. “She declined to meet with us until our court case was over. I wonder if she will now listen to what we have to say?” asked Mrs Abrahart. “We are one family in a network of bereaved families who want to learn from deaths and help universities identify safer practices and put them in place, but sadly, to date we are hardly ever consulted.
“There is no group of people more determined to prevent such tragedies happening to anybody else. Between us we have a wealth of knowledge about how and why distressed students slip through the net. We can help identify small low-cost changes that could and should be implemented, right now, to save lives and protect student mental health,” she added.
The ruling, and the validation it gave Natasha’s parents for everything they have been highlighting in the past four years mark the end of one chapter in what has been a long and painful road. It involved raising funds through a crowdfunder appeal to be able to take the University to the civil court in Bristol. The couple fought back the tears in an emotional moment in Redcliffe, less than a mile from where their daughter’s body was found that devastating morning four years and three weeks ago.
“We would like to thank our family and friends who have supported us over the last four years,” said Mrs Abrahart. “And the brave former students who gave evidence to the court despite still living with the trauma of Natasha’s death, the 900 people who contributed to our crowdfunding campaign for legal costs, the charity INQUEST who support families through that very difficult process, and to the journalists who have covered Natasha’s case over the years. Special mention should also be made of our hugely supportive and strongly committed lawyers: Gus Silverman, Bethany Parr, Sarah Steinhardt, Tom Stoate, Heather Williams QC and Jamie Burton QC. They were outstanding,” she said.
“We loved Natasha dearly. We will always love her. And it is heart-breaking that our exceptional daughter, who gave us so much joy, and had so much more to offer the world, was failed so badly and suffered such unnecessary torment,” she added.
The University of Bristol issued a statement after the verdict, and said it did not want to comment on the judge’s rulings until it had properly considered them – and that included considering whether or not to appeal.
“Our whole university community has been deeply affected by Natasha’s tragic death and we would once again like to extend our sympathies to her friends and family,” a University of Bristol spokesperson said:
“Like all universities, schools and colleges, we are deeply concerned by the increase of mental health issues amongst our young people nationally. We do our very best to support any student who is struggling with their mental health and have a wide range of services available.
“We believe staff in the School of Physics worked incredibly hard and diligently to support Natasha during her time with us, and it was due to their efforts that she was receiving specialist mental health support from the NHS. Our staff’s efforts also included offering alternative options for Natasha’s assessments to alleviate the anxiety she faced about presenting her laboratory findings to her peers. We are very grateful to them for their endeavours on Natasha’s behalf and for their unwavering commitment to our students.
“Alongside the support available, we have introduced an opt-in policy to alert a nominated contact when we have serious concerns about a student’s wellbeing and more robust procedures to assess students’ fitness to study. However, it is important that students receive appropriate specialist care under the NHS should they need it.
“We cannot replicate the NHS but are committed to working with the NHS and other partners to improve services and ensure we are collectively providing the best possible support for students.
“Given the significant impact this decision could have on how all higher education providers support their students, we are reviewing the decision carefully, including whether to appeal. In light of that review, it would not be appropriate to comment further on the judgment at the present time,” she added.
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