The University of Bristol discriminated against a physics student who took her own life before an oral exam after suffering from crippling anxiety, a senior judge has found.
“Hard-working and high-achieving” Natasha Abrahart, 20, was found dead in her flat in April 2018, the day before she was due to take part in a group presentation in a 329-seat lecture theatre.
The university has been ordered to pay Ms Abrahart’s parents £50,000 in damages for failing to accommodate her mental health disability or make reasonable adjustments to the way it assessed their daughter.
Ms Abrahart had made a previous suicide attempt in the winter term, and university staff were aware she was struggling.
Before the presentation, known as a laboratory conference, Ms Abrahart had struggled to complete one-on-one interview-based assessments, attending only two out of five.
In her first assessment, she was so shy she scored only eight out of a possible 20 marks.
The court heard that in the months before Ms Abrahart’s death, there was a “significant deterioration in her mental health”.
In February 2018 she emailed one university employee, saying: “I’ve been having suicidal thoughts and to a certain degree attempted it.”
An inquest into Ms Abrahart’s death in May 2019 found she had been neglected by mental health services.
But the coroner ruled the adequacy of support provided by the university was outside the inquest’s scope.
Her parents Robert and Margaret sued the university, claiming it failed to deliver on its duties to their daughter under the Equalities Act.
At a trial at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre in March, the couple alleged the university failed to make reasonable adjustments for Ms Abrahart’s mental disability.
They also claimed she was a victim of indirect discrimination and suffered discrimination as a disabled student.
Ms Abrahart’s family say oral assessments could have been replaced with written versions or she could have been provided with questions in advance.
They also say the laboratory conference could have been moved to a smaller venue.
Representatives for the university said attempts were made to meet Ms Abrahart’s needs.
She had been told she did not need to speak during the presentation and could stand at the back, as long as she could prove she had contributed to its preparation.
Ms Abrahart also failed to attend several meetings with her supervisors and the university’s mental health services, despite close friends urging her to go.
Her parents emphasised that despite the civil claim, they did not allege that any member of staff breached their duty of care to their daughter, noting many had tried to help her.
On Friday, His Honour Judge Alex Ralton ruled the university was not negligent but had breached its duties to make reasonable adjustments to the way it assessed Ms Abrahart.
He also said the university had engaged in indirect disability discrimination against Ms Abrahart, and treated Ms Abrahart unfavourably because of the consequences of her disability.
He found these breaches led to her death, and in a 46-page written judgement, said: “It is obvious to me that the fundamental purpose of the assessments was to elicit from Natasha answers to questions put to her following the experiments and it is a statement of the obvious that such a process does not automatically require face-to-face oral interaction and there are other ways of achieving the same.”
He observed that “whilst a few ideas” regarding possible adjustments were “floated” by the university “none were implemented”.
He ordered the university to pay damages of £50,000.
During the trial, Jamie Burton QC, for the claimants, said Ms Abrahart had been acutely shy from childhood. She had grown up fascinated by physics and had taught herself computer programming.
He said she surrounded herself with a small group of long-standing friends while growing up but did not talk much.
Mr Burton added: “She would shut down when made the centre of attention or when confronted by people in positions of authority.”
Ms Abrahart had carried out internet searches on the link between anxiety and depression, as well as searches such as “why do I hate people?” and “why do I find people scary?”.
Mr Abrahart, a retired university lecturer, said: “Today, 1,481 days after Natasha took her own life on the day of an assessment she simply couldn’t do, after years of protestations from the university that it did all it could to support her, after having battled our way through an inquest and a civil trial, we finally have the truth: the University of Bristol broke the law and exposed our daughter to months of wholly unnecessary psychological trauma, as she watched her grades plummet, and her hopes for the future crumble before her eyes.”
Mrs Abrahart, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, called on the university to apologise, and “finally take its head out of the sand and recognise that now is the time for change”.
A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “Our whole university community has been deeply affected by Natasha’s tragic death and we would once again like to extend our sympathies to her friends and family.
“We believe staff in the School of Physics worked incredibly hard and diligently to support Natasha during her time with us, and it was due to their efforts that she was receiving specialist mental health support from the NHS.
“Our staff’s efforts also included offering alternative options for Natasha’s assessments to alleviate the anxiety she faced about presenting her laboratory findings to her peers. We are very grateful to them for their endeavours on Natasha’s behalf and for their unwavering commitment to our students.”
They added: “We cannot replicate the NHS but are committed to working with the NHS and other partners to improve services and ensure we are collectively providing the best possible support for students.
“Given the significant impact this decision could have on how all higher education providers support their students, we are reviewing the decision carefully, including whether to appeal.”