Do universities owe students a duty of care?

duty of care

Following the tragic loss of several students, including Natasha Abrahart, there has been widespread discussion about the duty of care that universities owe to their students. But what exactly does the recent High Court judgement in Abrahart’s case mean? And what responsibilities do universities have towards vulnerable students? Our Education Law solicitor, Rhys Palmer, takes a closer look at the recent rulings to shed light on these important questions.

Abrahart judgement – 2022

As rightfully put by HHJ Ralton from the outset of their judgement:

“This is a tragic case”

Natasha Abrahart, a student at Bristol University, had chronic social anxiety. As part of her course, Natasha was required to make a presentation in front of a great number of students but sadly took her own life on the very same day. Despite the university being aware of Natasha’s mental health issues, the university required her to complete these oral assessments.

Dr Abrahart, Natasha’s father, therefore brought the following claims with the Court:

  • The university had discriminated against Natasha under the Equality Act 2010
  • The university breached its common law duty of care owed to Natasha

The initial judgement confirmed that the university had contributed to Natasha’s death and that:

  • The claims for disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 were upheld
  • The claim for negligence was dismissed and no ‘common law’ duty of care was established.

The Court therefore confirmed that the university contributed towards Natasha’s death as a result of disability discrimination. The University of Bristol then sought to appeal the decision.

Feder & McCamish – 2023

Pending the upcoming Abrahart appeal, an unrelated university claim was issued by Sydney Feder and Alyce McCamish, students at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD).

The Claimants reported incidents of sexual misconduct to staff at the RWCMD and issued a claim on the basis that the university had failed to sufficiently investigate the allegations and protect both students (a breach of their common law duty of care).

The judge confirmed that the RWCMD had breached their duty of care towards the students, therefore establishing a common law duty of care:

“to take reasonable care by taking reasonable, protective, supportive and investigatory and, when appropriate, disciplinary action steps and in associated communications”.

No doubt there were many out there thinking that the judgement in Feder would bolster the counter-claim that was brought by Dr Abrahart in the upcoming appeal to establish a landmark common law duty of care.

Abrahart – 2024

The University of Bristol brought an appeal challenging the decision made in 2022 and claimed that they did not owe a duty to make reasonable adjustments on the basis that the oral assessment was a ‘competency standard’ and that the university had acted reasonably. Mr Justice Linden rejected the university’s appeal.

Natasha’s parents brought a cross-appeal asking Mr Justice Linden to reconsider the judgement made on the common law duty of care as it was not compatible with the aforementioned Feder judgement. However, Mr Justice Linden did not express a final view of the issue of negligence as he did not feel it necessary given that the claims for discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 were successful.

Natasha’s parents now hope that the recent judgement will encourage politicians to implement a common law duty of care owed by universities to students.

We should not lose sight of the fact that countless students have lost their lives. Vulnerable students should be supported.

The contents of this blog are accurate as of 26.02.2024 and do not constitute legal advice.


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