Credit: The Learn Network

Families of bereaved students say government response is inadequate

By Niamh Flanagan

Last month, The Glasgow Guardian reported on a petition launched by The LEARN Network, a group of over 20 bereaved families of students who had died by suicide during their time at university. The petition called for a legal duty of care be implemented across higher education to ensure that students be protected throughout their time of study, after families found their loved ones had been failed by their respective institutions who had not taken the necessary steps to protect their wellbeing, resulting in tragic suicides. The petition emerged after a senior court county judge found the University of Bristol to have caused the death of Natasha Abrahart, who died by suicide aged 20 while studying at Bristol. Judge Alex Ralton found that the University, in subjecting Natasha to a regime of oral assessments which exacerbated her condition of social anxiety disorder, had breached its duties under the Equality Act. However, the judge could not find that the University was in breach of its duty of care, as he was not prepared to rule that the University owed Natasha a duty of care under common law. 

As such, Robert and Margaret Abrahart, parents of Natasha, alongside members of TLN, launched a parliamentary petition in October 2022 requiring the government to implement legislation that would require universities to have a statutory duty of care towards their students. At the end of January 2023, the petition reached 10,000 signatures, requiring an official government response. The response from the Department of Education was as follows: 

“Higher Education providers do have a general duty of care to deliver educational and pastoral services to the standard of an ordinarily competent institution and, in carrying out these services, they are expected to act reasonably to protect the health, safety and welfare of their students. This can be summed up as providers owing a duty of care to not cause harm to their students through the university’s own actions.”

A press release issued by Irwin & Mitchell earlier this month on behalf of TLN contains the response of Robert Abrahart: 

“The Government’s response appears to be an attempt at ducking the issue, and it does nothing to inform the debate about how the universities should keep students safe. The judge in Natasha’s case refused to recognise a duty of care on universities to take reasonable care for the wellbeing, health and safety of its students, and to avoid causing them psychiatric injury through methods of teaching for example. The response from the Department for Education ignores this entirely. If the Government agrees with us that students deserve the protection of a legal duty of care then it should introduce a bill in Parliament rather than making bland statements. Such a duty should cover not only negligent acts by universities but also negligent failures to act, which the Government’s statement also ignores.”

Margaret Abrahart made clear that TLN would continue to push for the implementation of a statutory duty of care: 

“I fear this response was made in the hope that we would go away. We and the other members of The LEARN Network will not go away until we have improved the protections for vulnerable university students. We owe it to Natasha, and to all the others who have died far too young, to make sure their deaths were not in vain.” 

Gus Silverman is a human rights lawyer who represented Robert and Margaret back in May 2022, and has also represented other bereaved parents of students. He commented: 

“Natasha’s parents were able to get some measure of justice because the particular requirements of the Equality Act were met in Natasha’s case. However, unless they are able to establish the existence of a duty of care in negligence many families and students will find it very difficult to hold universities accountable through the courts, including where a death has tragically occurred. The Government now has an opportunity to clearly define in statute the legal duties owed by universities to students. Failing to seize this opportunity risks preventing access to justice through the courts.”

The petition now has until 19 March 2023 to reach 100,000 signatures and be debated in parliament. A movement entitled  #ForThe100  has been launched in partnership with The LEARN Network to urge more people to sign the petition calling for a statutory duty of care between now and 19 March. The campaign aims are as such: 

“It is estimated that around 100 university students are lost to suicide every year across the UK. This campaign believes the focus should be shifted away from student-blaming, and towards university management. Safer systems and practices are needed, supported by a statutory requirement to exercise reasonable care and skill when teaching students and providing support services”.


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