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University discriminated against student who took own life, judge rules

University discriminated against student who took own life, judge rules
Parents awarded £50,000 damages after academic heads failed to make mental health adjustments for Natasha Abrahart

The family of a student who took her own life have been awarded £50,000 in damages after winning a landmark civil case against a university for failing to make adjustments for her social anxiety disorder.

A senior judge has found Bristol University liable for “multiple breaches” of its legal duties towards Natasha Abrahart, 20.

Her body was found in her flat in April 2018, on the day she was due to give a presentation to fellow students and staff in a 329-seat lecture theatre.

The second-year physics student had been diagnosed with chronic social anxiety disorder two months earlier.

She was at least the tenth student at the university to take their own life since October 2016.

Ms Abrahart’s parents, Robert, 65, and Margaret Abrahart, 60, sued the university.

Their lawyers argued in the civil trial that the university breached the Equality Act 2010 when it failed to adjust its regime of oral assessments of her work in the light of her disorder.

In his judgment, Judge Alex Ralton found that the university had breached its duties to make reasonable adjustments to how it assessed Ms Abrahart; engaged in indirect disability discrimination and treated her unfavourably.

He found that these breaches led to her death, noting that experts said the main cause of her depressive illness was academic oral assessments.

The judge also said that adjustments, such as removing the need for oral assessments altogether, assessing Ms Abrahart in the absence of her peers or using a smaller venue, should have been put in place.

He observed that while university chiefs floated a few ideas on possible adjustments, none was implemented, and he ordered the university to pay £50,518 damages.

After the ruling, Mr Abrahart, himself a retired university lecturer, said: “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.”

Mrs Abrahart, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, said they wanted to work with the university to ensure the failings were not repeated “so other families don’t have to suffer as we have suffered”.

She said she hoped the university would apologise.

A university spokesperson said: “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.

“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.”

They said the university did its best to support any student struggling with their mental health.

“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.”

They added they were reviewing the decision, including whether to appeal.

Additional reporting by agencies