Appeal Court dismisses University of Bristol’s appeal in case of discrimination that caused tragic death of disabled student

Jamie Burton KC and Sarah Steinhardt acted for Dr Robert Abrahart in his successful claim against the University of Bristol in discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. The University’s appeal to the High Court was dismissed by Mr Justice Linden in a lengthy judgment handed down on 14 February 2024.

In what was believed to be the first case of its kind, the County Court Judge found in Mary 2022 that disability discrimination by the University caused Dr Abrahart’s daughter, Natasha, “serious and … continuous” suffering and that the un-adjusted requirement to carry out oral assessments, despite Natasha’s distress, was “the primary stressor and cause of Natasha’s depressive illness”, which led to her suicide. The County Court concluded that the University’s actions constituted and a failure to make reasonable adjustments and unlawful disability and indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. The Judge ordered the University to pay damages of £50,518. This reflected the injury to Natasha’s feelings and the deterioration in her mental health caused by the University, and funeral costs.

The University challenged both the County Judge’s findings of fact and his application of the law in a wide-ranging appeal. However, Mr Justice Linden rejected all of the grounds of appeal and upheld the County Court Order in all respects. 

Natasha Abrahart was a physics student and had Social Anxiety Disorder. She had been a high-achieving student until her second year at university but from October 2017 she was required to undertake oral assessments as part of a laboratory module. Academic staff first became aware of her profound difficulty with oral assessments when she left the first such assessment without being able to answer a single question. In December 2017 Senior Tutor for the School of Physics noted that “She does have a problem with what looks like panic and anxiety issues with the interview assessment format”. 

Her body was found in her flat just six months later, on the day she was due to give a presentation to fellow students and staff in a 329-seat lecture theatre. Her death followed earlier suicidal behaviour and attempts in the months leading up to her death. She was at least the tenth student at the University of Bristol to take their own life since October 2016, and was just 20 years old.

The University argued amongst other points that the oral assessments that caused Natasha distress were a ‘competence standard’ and as such it was not obliged to make any adjustments to it even if they would have benefited Natasha. It also maintained that even if the oral assessments were not a competence standard, it was not reasonable for the University to make the adjustments identified by Mr Abrahart as Natasha had failed to comply with its internal procedures or engage with its Disability Service. These defences were rejected by the County Court Judge, not least because Natasha’s non-engagement was a symptom of her disability. Mr Justice Linden has now confirmed that HHJ Ralton was correct to do so.  

Summing his overall conclusions, Mr Justice Linden stated at paragraph 267 of his judgment:

“For the avoidance of doubt, the lesson of [the discrimination] part of the case is not that due process and evidence are unimportant where the question of reasonable adjustments arises in this context. They are important. There will no doubt be many cases where it is reasonable to verify what the disabled person says and/or to require expert evidence or recommendations so as to make well informed decisions. A degree of procedural formality will also generally be appropriate for the reasons which the University advanced. But what a disabled person says and/or does is evidence. There may be circumstances, such as urgency and/or the severity of their condition, in which a court will be prepared to conclude that it is sufficient evidence for an educational institution to be required to take action. That was the view of the County Court on the facts of this particular case.”

A claim in negligence was rejected by the County Court, which found that no relevant duty of care was owed. Mr Abrahart cross-appealed on this issue. However, Mr Justice Linden did not decide whether a duty of care existed as it was unnecessary for him to do in order to uphold the Order of the County Court. Therefore, the existence, nature and scope of any duty of care on universities in this context will have to be the subject of another case. 

The case sets a significant precedent and has been widely reported in the media, including the BBCITV and Channel 4 news.

Jamie and Sarah were instructed Gus Silverman at DPG Law.