Duty of care still needed despite court win, say Abraharts

Couple whose daughter died while studying at Bristol argue legislation can provide clarity as universities contend with spate of student suicides

February 26, 2024
Robert and Margaret Abrahart read a statement outside Bristol County Court
Source: Tom Wren/SWNS

Bereaved parents whose daughter died by suicide at the University of Bristol have said they will keep campaigning to establish that UK institutions have a legal duty of care to their students after a judge stopped short of imposing this.

Robert and Margaret Abrahart saw their claim that Bristol had breached the Equality Act by failing to adjust its assessments so their daughter Natasha could participate in her course upheld this month after a High Court appeal. Natasha, who died in 2018, had a severe anxiety disorder.

However, considering a separate claim that the university owed a duty of care to Natasha under negligence law, Mr Justice Linden declined to express a view, partly because the “issue is one of potentially wide application and significance”.

Dr Abrahart, a retired lecturer, said this had been “the whole point of doing it”, adding: “We thought it was so important someone pushed the boundary to test the water to see what the court would do.”

Along with other bereaved parents, the Abraharts have attempted to get the UK government to legislate on the issue, forcing a parliamentary debate last year after gathering more than 100,000 signatures on a petition.

The higher education minister, Robert Halfon, said at the time that establishing a legal duty of care was not necessary, in part because it already existed under common law, but the Abraharts have argued the current situation is too confusing.

“One of the things we wanted was clarity so that everybody knows where they stand,” Dr Abrahart told Times Higher Education. “I don’t think it could be any more confusing. Is there a duty of care or is there not a duty of care? And, if so, what is that duty and what is the degree of care owed? Nobody knows: parents don’t know, students don’t know, staff don’t know. All we wanted was clarity and we haven’t got it.”

The Abraharts have argued that legislation could establish some parameters and give staff at universities a better understanding of what they are expected to do when dealing with a student in crisis.

Rather than legislating on duty of care, Mr Halfon last summer announced a national review of student suicides, which is due to report in July, but Dr Abrahart said the exercise felt like it was “kicking the can down the road while people are dying”.

The sector has generally opposed the idea that a duty of care should be imposed on institutions, with a Universities UK briefing last year arguing it would be “disproportionate and inappropriate” because universities have limited control over students’ lives.

Dr Abrahart said arguments against the idea had often conflated the duty of care they are calling for with that found in hospitals or schools, but he argued it could be made distinct to a university setting.

The couple said they did not plan to take their appeal further, but they would support a different family to bring another test case, particularly one that focused solely on the duty of care issue.

They are also planning a new campaign and hope to take their case back to Parliament, potentially targeting a new government after this year’s election. Labour – favourites to win the poll – had been “sympathetic”, Mrs Abrahart said, but they had “not seen a positive commitment from anybody yet”.

At the time of the ruling Bristol’s vice-chancellor, Evelyn Welch, said the university was “deeply sorry” for the family’s loss and it was continuing to develop and improve its mental health support services.

A spokesman for the institution confirmed it would not be appealing the judgment further.


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Reader's comments (1)

Us already have a significant duty of care - probably both in contract and in tort - where they have held themselves out to deliver services XYZ with reasonable care & skill (ranging from the delivery of teaching & assessment and hence a duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act, via their offer of efficient mental health support and careers advice, to good old-fashioned Health & Safety requirements along with Occupier’s Liability). What they do not have is a broad, general, pervasive, pro-active duty to protect their adult customers from anything & everything, including from themselves; and to be liable for omitting to do so. Uni students are not school children; Us have not been in loco parentis since the 1960s.