University’s Duties towards Disabled Student - The University of Bristol v Dr Robert Abrahart [2024] EWHC 299

United Kingdom

This judgment concerns the tragic case of a second-year physics student at the University of Bristol (the “University”) who ended her own life in April 2018. She had been diagnosed with depression and social anxiety disorder, which qualifies as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 (the “Act”). As part of her course, she was required to present orally, with other students, the findings of an experiment they conducted and to answer questions about the experiment and the relevant underlying principles of physics. It was accepted as a fact that the cause of her death was anxiety over this oral examination. Her father brought a claim against the University as executor of her estate for (i) failure to make reasonable adjustments pursuant to its duty to do so under s20 of the Act; and (ii) negligence.

Reasonable adjustments

The Act imposes on the University the duty of making reasonable adjustments to avoid the disadvantage caused by a provision, criterion or practice, (“PCP”) to a disabled student which puts that student at a substantial disadvantage compared with those students who do not share that disability.

The primary issue was whether the oral examination, which was only part of the assessment for the relevant module, was a PCP or a competence standard.  A ‘competence standard’ is defined in the Act as “an academic, medical or other standard applied for the purpose of determining whether or not a person has a particular level of competence or ability”.  A competence standard is not to be regarded as a PCP under the Act and reasonable adjustments are not required to be made to these.

The University argued that the assessment of a student’s ability to explain laboratory work orally, to defend it and to answer questions on it was a competence standard because this “is a core competency of a professional scientist”.   The father’s case was that it could not have been a competency standard as (i) it was an assessment of the student’s knowledge and comprehension, their laboratory practice and their ability to explain and defend their work and answer questions on it – it was not an assessment of oral competence; and (ii) it was theoretically possible to pass the module without attending the oral interview element at all. The County Court (and the High Court on appeal) agreed with the father and found, as a matter of fact, that oral competency was not the core competency being assessed. The High Court noted in particular that the Intended Learning Outcomes (“ILOs”) made little reference to oral competency.

After establishing that the oral examination was a PCP, the issue before the court was whether the University breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments, particularly whether it complied with the “anticipatory” element of that duty. The father’s case was that the University should have dispensed with the oral assessment entirely. The University had considered doing away with this in this specific case, but its own process required a Disability Support Statement and medical evidence before this could be done. The University argued that in the interests of fairness to other students and academic integrity, it was reasonable not to depart from this requirement where the student concerned had not proposed any adjustments, had not made an application for extenuating circumstances following her previous failures to attend oral assessments, and had refused to attend appointments arranged for her or to engage with the support services who did reach out to her.  The University did not dispute that such conduct was a result of her disability but argued that its regulations and codes of practice were reasonable and therefore compliant with the Act. The Court did not accept that argument and pointed out that the University’s own regulations were not the law – they were subject to the law, and that the regulations themselves stated that the duty to make reasonable adjustments might require relaxing or setting aside regulation provisions. There was no obligation on the student to specify the adjustments which she required – it was the University’s duty to propose them.


A separate head of claim was that the University owed a duty of care to the student “to take reasonable care for the wellbeing, health and safety of its students… in particular… to take reasonable steps to avoid and not cause injury, including psychiatric injury and harm”.  The existence of such duty of care was not accepted by the County Court, which found that there was no statute or precedent which establishes the existence of such a duty of care owed by a university to a student.  The court held that the fact that the University provides welfare services to its students does not give rise to a duty of care to protect them “from themselves”. There is no duty analogous to that of a school towards a child under its care, where the school is acting in loco parentis, or that of a prison towards inmates.   It was further held that it was not fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care to the student concerned because, as a disabled student, she was afforded protection by the Act and her remedy lay under the Act. 

The father appealed this point but the High Court judge did not find it necessary to address the point, given his conclusions in respect of the disability discrimination claims.  The judge (The Honourable Mr Justice Linden) stated, however, that the issue is one of potentially wide application and significance and that he doubted that the county court judge’s findings on the claims under the Equality Act 2010 could simply be mapped across to the common law of negligence.  Moreover, the judge did not think that the issues in relation to the law of negligence were fully argued in the county court, where most of the hearing was spent on the issues under the Act.  He noted that in the event of an appeal the Court of Appeal will be able fully to address the issues in relation to negligence and duty of care should it consider it appropriate to do so.

Key conclusions

  • The case confirmed that higher education institutions must consider the needs of disabled students and make reasonable adjustments, even if these are not specifically requested. Universities must ensure that disabled students are identified and that their needs are considered, to avoid breaches of the Equality Act 2010.
  • Universities have to analyse what competencies are considered essential to passing a course and whether assessments are genuinely measuring those competencies or not.  Competency standards do not need to be lowered for disabled students, but reasonable adjustments may need to be made to the methods of assessing these.
  • Reliance on university regulations and codes of practice will not provide protection against discrimination claims if a PCP infringes the Act.
  • The finding of the county court that there is no statute or common law precedent imposing on a university a duty to take care of the psychological wellbeing of its students was not settled in the High Court.  It awaits further analysis from the Court of Appeal if the point is appealed in this case or on a subsequent decision.

The University of Bristol v Dr Robert Abrahart [2024] EWHC 299

Dr Robert Abrahart (Administrator of the estate of Natasha Abrahart decd) v University of Bristol [2022] Claim No: G10YX983