The High Court is currently hearing a case that could have significant implications for universities and their responsibility towards student mental health. Lawyers representing the parents of Natasha Abrahart, who died by suicide, are arguing that universities owe a duty of care to their students. The University of Bristol, where Natasha studied, maintains that no such duty exists. The case seeks to clarify the extent of a university’s responsibilities and whether they have a duty to prevent harm to their students.
Natasha Abrahart, who suffered from social anxiety, tragically took her own life in 2018. A judge ruled last year that the University of Bristol had not made reasonable adjustments for Natasha, but also stated that it was unclear whether the university owed her a duty of care. Natasha’s parents are now appealing this decision, arguing that a duty of care should be the minimum legal standard for universities. They believe that the law needs to catch up with the changing world and the evolving needs of students.
The University of Bristol expressed its condolences to the Abrahart family and acknowledged that Natasha was offered alternatives to giving a presentation. However, it also raised concerns about the potential burden on staff if universities were required to provide extensive mental health support. The university emphasized the importance of students receiving specialist care from the National Health Service (NHS) when needed. The prospect of a statutory duty of care has raised concerns among universities, with some arguing that it may not be the most effective approach and that existing duties are sufficient.
The case has garnered significant attention and support, with more than 100,000 people signing a petition from the Abrahart family and other families who have lost students to suicide. The Higher Education Minister, Robert Halfon, acknowledged the need for progress in student mental health and did not rule out future legislation. Mental health campaigners argue that a duty of care is necessary to protect vulnerable students who may be struggling with mental health issues or other challenges.
Official estimates suggest that 64 students died by suicide in England and Wales in the 2019-20 academic year. However, families argue that reporting issues may mean the actual number is higher. Universities UK (UUK), an organization representing over 140 institutions, expressed its commitment to student mental health and suicide prevention. However, UUK does not believe that an additional statutory duty of care is practical or proportionate. Last year, UUK issued guidance advising universities to implement information-sharing policies and to prioritize mental health.
The outcome of the court case will have significant implications for universities and their responsibilities towards student mental health. While some argue that a statutory duty of care is necessary, others question its practicality and effectiveness. The case has brought attention to the need for clearer guidelines and support for students, particularly those who are vulnerable or struggling with mental health issues. The Department for Education has stated that it will carefully consider the court’s judgment once it is handed down.