Tue 23 Jan 2024

The EHRC assists the High Court to clarify the duties of universities under the Equality Act 2010

This High Court case considers the duty of care and duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010.

In December 2023, the High Court in England heard an appeal by Bristol University against a County Court finding that it had failed to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 for a student who took her own life.  However, the County Court had also found that the University did not owe the student a duty of care. This aspect of the judgment was appealed by the student's parents who argued that a statutory duty of care would require university staff to take reasonable care in their actions, avoiding any actions that could foreseeably cause harm to students.

Both aspects of this case, the duty of care issue and the obligations of universities under the Equality Act 2010, are significant particularly at a time where there is widespread concern about declining student mental health.  The statutory duty of care issue was the subject of a parliamentary debate in 2023, following a petition calling for its introduction being signed by nearly 130,000 people.  Following the debate, the UK Government confirmed it had no plans to legislate for such a duty. 

As regards the equality issue, Bristol University has said that, in appealing, they are seeking "absolute clarity for the higher education sector around the application of the Equality Act when staff do not know a student has a disability, or when it has yet to be diagnosed". 

Given the significance of this case, the EHRC sought, and was granted permission, to intervene in the “landmark” case to provide guidance to the Court on how and when universities should make reasonable adjustments for students.  The judgment of the High Court is awaited with considerable interest by educational establishments across the UK.

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