University of Bristol faces legal challenge over death of student Natasha Abrahart

Natasha Abrahart was found dead in April 2018.

The University of Bristol is due to face a trial to determine whether it contributed to the death of a student.

Natasha Abrahart's body was found in her private flat in April 2018. She was due to give a presentation to fellow students and staff in a lecture theatre on the same day.

A legal hearing is due to start tomorrow (March 1) and will examine if the university played a part in her death.

The second-year physics student, who was originally from Nottinghamshire, was diagnosed with chronic social anxiety disorder two months before she died.

Natasha, who was 20 years old, had been a high-achieving student.

In her second year of university she started to struggle and experienced anxiety and panic attacks in relation to the oral assessments she was required to take as part of her course.

An inquest into her death in May 2019 concluded she had been neglected by mental health services.

But the senior coroner for Avon Maria Voisin ruled the adequacy of support provided to Natasha by the university was outside the scope of the inquest.

The trial is expected to last for seven days. It comes after Natasha’s parents Robert and Margaret Abrahart, who are crowdfunding for legal costs, have filed court documents challenging the university’s role in their daughter's death.

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The family's lawyers will argue the university breached a legal duty of care for Natasha.

They will also say the university breached equality laws when it failed to adjust its regime of oral assessments in light of Natasha's social anxiety disorder.

According to the family's lawyers, these breaches cause a deterioration in Natasha's mental health leading to her death.

The university is defending the claim in full, including by denying it owed Natasha any relevant legal duty of care.

A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: "Natasha's death deeply affected everyone at the university and our thoughts and sympathies are with the Abrahart family."

Natasha's dad, Robert, said: “Natasha was an incredibly intelligent and academically able student who had her entire life ahead of her.

"We believe universities should owe a legally enforceable duty of care to take reasonable steps to avoid harming the mental health of their students.

"Given repeated assurances from the University of Bristol and other institutions about how much they care about student wellbeing, I think most students and parents would be surprised to learn that the existence of such a duty is being disputed in this case.”

Her family say that the university breached their duty of care for Natasha.

Her mum, Margaret, said: “Nothing can make up for losing Natasha but we’re determined to ensure that all relevant events which led up to her death are fully scrutinised.

"We want lessons to be learned and student safety improved where possible.

“We’re bringing this case to court for the benefit of all students, especially those living with mental ill-health and other disabilities.”

Gus Silverman, a public law and human rights specialist at Irwin Mitchell representing the family, said: “All universities have obligations under the Equality Act to ensure that students with disabilities, whether physical or non-physical, are not unlawfully discriminated against.

"This can include a duty to make reasonable adjustments to methods of assessment so as to ensure those methods don’t place students at a substantial disadvantage.

“This isn’t about giving disabled students an unfair advantage over their peers; it’s about levelling the playing field so that everyone has a chance to succeed.”

A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: "Like all universities, schools and colleges, we are deeply concerned by the increase of mental health issues amongst our young people nationally.

"We do our very best to support any student who is struggling with their mental health and have a wide range of services available. However, it is important that students receive appropriate specialist care under the NHS.

"At the time of Natasha’s death in April 2018, she was under the care of Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership. We are fully committed to working with our partners in the NHS, charities and across the higher education sector in a collaborative effort to ensure we are collectively providing the best possible support for students in their studies.

"We recognise the immense efforts of our committed staff to support Natasha, but we are by no means complacent. Mental health is one of the biggest public health issues affecting young people globally – not just those studying at University."