Court case could change universities’ duty of care to student mental health

The high court is examining universities’ responsibilities towards students after a University of Bristol student died by suicide five years ago

13th December 2023 about a 5 minute read
“What we're really focusing on here is the minority of students that are in a vulnerable position that are potentially suicidal, struggling with their mental health, struggling with issues outside of university. Maybe they've experienced sexual assault. They need protection that's not given currently under the law.” Ben West, mental health campaigner

This week, the High Court is considering whether universities owe a duty of care to their students – and the judge’s decision could have far-reaching implications.

Lawyers acting for the parents of Natasha Abrahart, a University of Bristol undergraduate who took her own life, will argue that the university failed in its duty of care towards her. The university, however, is arguing that it has no such duty.

If Natasha’s parents win the case, it will mean universities have a legal responsibility for the psychological wellbeing of students.

The three-day hearing in Bristol has been considering what falls under a university’s remit. It aims to clarify the limitations of universities’ responsibilities towards their students, most of whom are young adults in their late teens or early 20s living away from their family homes for the first time.

Maggie and Bob Abrahart have been campaigning for six years to call the University of Bristol to account. Their daughter, Natasha, had social anxiety, and had been due to give a presentation in a large lecture theatre on the day she died in 2018.

Law needs to ‘catch up’

Last year, a judge ruled in support of the parents, saying that the university had failed to make reasonable adjustments for Natasha – a decision against which the university is now appealing.

The judge also said, however, that it was not clear that the university owed Natasha a duty of care, saying there was “no statute or precedent which establishes the existence of such a duty of care owed by a university to a student.” The Abraharts are appealing against that decision.

Dr Bob Abrahart told the BBC there should be a duty of care as a “minimum standard of legal protection,” adding: “The world has changed. Students have changed. The law needs to catch up.”

Maggie Abrahart said: “We know what universities are aiming for – and there’s an awful lot the government is looking at… But what we really need to see is, what is the minimum that you can expect?

“No matter what you read in your prospectus, don’t ever assume that’s what’s going to happen – because without a duty of care, it doesn’t have to happen.”

Sarah Banham, clinical director of Digital First and CEO of All About You, noted that 27% of 18-year olds arriving at university have a mental health diagnosis, while 57% say they have a mental health issue. “We’re sending them away from home, away from their traditional support systems into isolated areas to live, and expecting them to fly,” she said. Banham said that although universities may be putting money into helplines and support services, “it’s not enough, and it’s not working.” Helplines are only useful, she added, for people who have reached a point where they feel able to pick up a phone to speak to someone.

Many parents are now anxious about sending their child to university, Banham said, adding that  more work was needed by universities to offer early intervention to students to help them gain resilience, learn how to overcome loneliness and to have the confidence to ask for help. Digital apps offering access to support for conditions such as depression, loneliness and ADHD could all help, she said, adding: “We are letting our children fly the nest because we want them to grow into adults, but that is not going to happen the day they walk out of one door and into another.”

‘Additional burden’ on staff

The University of Bristol said it was “deeply sorry” for the Abraharts’ loss, and said that Natasha was offered alternative options to giving a presentation.

A spokesman for the university said it was concerned at the prospect of a “major additional burden on staff who are primarily educators, not healthcare professionals”.

He added: “Higher education staff across the country share our concern about the wider impact this judgement could have. It is important that students and their families are clear on what universities can and cannot do, and that students receive appropriate specialist care under the NHS, should they need it.”

Ben West, a mental health campaigner, told the BBC a duty of care would not affect most students: “What we’re really focusing on here is the minority of students that are in a vulnerable position that are potentially suicidal, struggling with their mental health, struggling with issues outside of university. Maybe they’ve experienced sexual assault. They need protection that’s not given currently under the law.”

Official estimates suggest 64 students killed themselves in England and Wales in 2019-20. Universities UK (UUK), which represents more than 140 institutions, said it wanted to see progress on student mental health and suicide protection. It added, however that it did not believe a proposed additional statutory duty of care would be “practical, proportionate, or the best approach to supporting students.”

FCC Insight

The immensely sad case of Natasha Abrahart raises important questions about the extent to which universities are responsible for students’ wellbeing. Natasha, a student at the University of Bristol, died by suicide in 2018 – one of 11 students at the university to take their own life between 2016 and 2018. The legal questions are complex, and the university may be right to argue that having a statutory duty of care imposed on higher education institutions would be burdensome. But official data show that rates of mental ill health are rising among young people, and many young people living away from home for the first time inevitably find the highly pressured environment of a university difficult to cope with. We hope that, whatever the outcome of this case, universities will think seriously about ways in which they can better support students who are struggling with their mental health.