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Leading university in the spotlight: Tragic consequences of breaching disability discrimination laws

Natasha’s father, Dr Robert Abrahart brought claims against the University of Bristol (“The University”) under the Equality Act 2010 after her death for:

  • Failure to make reasonable adjustments
  • Indirect discrimination
  • Direct discrimination arising from disability

He also brought a general claim for negligence, arguing that a duty of care was owed by the University to all students, including his daughter.

Natasha suffered from Social Anxiety Disorder and severe depression with prominent anxiety features which meant she had difficulty participating in verbal assessments, which were a requirement of her degree course in the second year.

Natasha had historically scored well in other assessments, including GCSEs, A Levels and the first year of her degree, in which she obtained a 2.1.  Whilst Natasha did attend the first ‘laboratory interview’ which required verbal input, she did not respond at all to any questions and received a low score.  Natasha then either did not attend subsequent assessments or, if she did attend, received a low score in comparison to her other university work.

It was agreed Natasha was disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act.

Natasha’s father was successful in his Equality Act claims that the University had:

  • Failed to make reasonable adjustments for his daughter (such as removing the need for oral assessments, reducing the size of the audience, or considering a smaller venue);
  • Participated in indirect disability discrimination against Natasha by imposing a ‘provision, criterion or practice’ that put her at a disadvantage because of her disability; and
  • Treated Natasha in an unfavourable way and this treatment arose from her disability.

The Judge found that the University should have altered their assessment methods for Natasha in light of all the circumstances.

However, Dr Abrahart’s claim for negligence did not succeed.  This was a new argument before the Court and the Judge found that there was no duty of care owed by the University to Natasha in this case.  However, if hypothetically there was a duty of care owed, the Judge commented that the University would have been in breach of it, due to their continued actions of requiring Natasha to continue to attend oral assessments that were not suitable for her.

This case should serve as a stark reminder to all higher education establishments that the Equality Act applies to them and that they must understand and comply with their duties under the Act. In practice, and amongst other things, this means:

  • accepting that long-term mental health illnesses that meet the statutory definition are considered a disability under the Act;
  • not treating students with a disability unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of their disability; and
  • understanding that failure to make reasonable adjustments without justification may be akin to unfavourable treatment.

Furthermore, in his observations, the Judge indicated that universities should take an anticipatory approach and avoid placing an expectation on a disabled student to disclose a disability.

He also commented that where there is a duty to make reasonable adjustments in the first place, then it is for each university to apply its mind to the adjustments that could be made as opposed to placing that responsibility on any disabled student.

This update is for general purposes and guidance only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. You should seek legal advice before relying on its content. This update relates to the prevailing circumstances at the date of its original publication and may not have been updated to reflect subsequent developments. If you have general queries about our updates, please email: mailinglists@greenwoods.co.uk




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      By completing and submitting this form, you consent to Greenwoods Legal LLP processing your personal data to provide you with the email update services you have selected and any other materials and information about our services that Greenwoods Legal LLP reasonably believes will be of interest to you. You are free to withdraw your consent at any time by emailing mailinglists@greenwoods.co.uk