Legal action

Clarifying responsibilities around reasonable adjustments in higher education

Published: 15 February 2024

Last updated: 15 February 2024

What countries does this apply to?

Case details

Protected Characteristic Age, Disability
Types of equality claim Discrimination arising from disability, Indirect discrimination, Reasonable adjustments
Court or tribunal High Court (Queen’s Bench Division)
Decision has to be followed in England, Scotland, Wales
Law applies in England, Scotland, Wales
Case state Concluded
Our involvement Intervention (section 30 of the Equality Act 2006)
Outcome Judgment
Areas of life Education
Public sector equality duty Yes
Human Rights law Article 14: Protection from discrimination in respect of these rights and freedoms, Protocol 1, Article 2: Right to education
International framework Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

Case name: The University of Bristol v Dr Robert Abrahart


Natasha Abrahart was a Physics student at Bristol University who took her own life in April 2018, shortly before she was due to give a presentation before her peers and lecturers. She was known to be socially anxious, and university staff were aware that she had not attended, or had been unable to speak at, a number of oral assessments earlier that year. She did not have a confirmed diagnosis but was under the care of the local mental health crisis team because of her social anxiety, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. The university was aware of this. The university had discussed making reasonable adjustments for Natasha and examining her through a different method (other than orally) but had not taken any steps to do so. It said that she had failed to engage with its disability service, which would assess what reasonable adjustments to put in place. It also argued that the method of assessment – here, an oral assessment – was a competence standard and therefore outside the parameters of the Equality Act 2010.

At the County Court in May 2022, it was held that Bristol University had failed to make reasonable adjustments for Natasha, indirectly discriminated against her and discriminated against her as a result of her disability, and that it had not justified these actions. However, it was held that there was no duty of care and as a result, no negligence.

The University appealed the County Court judgment. Natasha’s parents appealed the finding that the University had no duty of care. These appeals were heard on 11-13 December 2023.

Why we were involved

We supported this case as it enabled us to challenge discrimination in education, including where there has been a failure to make reasonable adjustments to improve educational outcomes for people with protected characteristics.

In this case, a failure to make reasonable adjustments led directly to the tragic outcome for a young university student. We identified this case as one where the EHRC could make an impact and help clarify the law. We were given permission to intervene in the case by the court.

What we did

We intervened under s30 Equality Act 2006 to provide clear, neutral and authoritative guidance to the court about how to approach the anticipatory duty to make reasonable adjustments and competence standards.

What happened

The High Court ruled that the University of Bristol failed to make reasonable adjustments for Natasha Abrahart. The court also determined that she had been indirectly discriminated against and discriminated against on the grounds of disability.

Who will benefit

Universities will benefit from clear guidance on what their duties under the Equality Act are, when those duties arise, and where the competence standard exception can be applied. Disabled students will benefit as the case will provide clarity on what they should expect from their university. Regulators like the OIA, and student bodies such as NUS and OfS will benefit from a clear statement of the law.

Date of hearing

11 December 2023

Date concluded

14 February 2024

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