Forthe100 – help us create a statutory legal duty of care for students in Higher Education
Although we mostly act for City and international firms these days, TBD Marketing is a Bristol-based enterprise. It’s where I came to study as a callow youth, the city I now call home and the place my wife and I have chosen to raise our youngest. And so it felt particularly close to home when I first heard the heartbreaking story of 20-year-old Natasha Abrahart.
Natasha was a vulnerable Bristol University student who took her own life in April 2018 because the university wouldn’t make allowances for her crippling social anxiety and insisted she had to sit a “terrifying” oral exam. In May last year, Bristol University was found guilty of failing Natasha in a landmark case brought by her parents.
Presiding at Bristol County Court, Ralton J ruled that the university had discriminated against Natasha and contributed to her death, ordering it to pay her parents the sum of £50,000. In a decision one can’t help but view as remarkably tone-deaf, the university sought to appeal the verdict, but was refused permission to do so by the High Court in October.
On the day of the verdict, Natasha’s father Robert Abrahart spoke to the assembled press outside the court:
“There are no winners or losers. Natasha is dead and the university’s reputation is in tatters. Today, 1,481 days after Natasha took her own life on the day of an assessment she simply couldn’t do, after years of protestations from the university that it did all it could to support her, after having battled our way through an inquest and a civil trial, we finally have the truth: the University of Bristol broke the law and exposed our daughter to months of unnecessary psychological trauma, as she watched her grades plummet, and her hopes for the future crumble before her eyes.”
I can’t begin to imagine the pain suffered by Robert and his wife Margaret, nor conceive of the courage with which they fought to bring Bristol University to account for its egregious failure to protect their child.
Sadly, Natasha is just one of many young people to take their life while at university. Every year across the UK, an average of 100 students commit suicide – it is an inconceivable loss of potential, of young lives left unlived, of devastation wrought on families and friends. Perhaps equally inconceivable in the face of this damning statistic is the fact that, despite charging them vast sums in tuition fees, universities currently do not have a statutory duty of care to their students. This is something that the Forthe100 campaign is now seeking to remedy.
Forthe100 is an action group made up of concerned mums, dads, brothers, sisters, friends and families from all walks of life. The group has set up a petition to the UK government and parliament to create a statutory legal duty of care for students in Higher Education. One of the advisors to Forthe100 is Georgina Calvert-Lee, Senior Consultant at Bellevue Law, who spoke to me about the campaign:
“Universities owe a duty of care to provide their employees with a reasonably safe workplace. Most would expect them also to owe a duty to provide their students with a reasonably safe place of education. The Government seems to think universities do owe this duty to their students but courts disagree. This confusion needs to be cleared up before more student lives are lost. Only Parliament has the power to do this by enacting a simple and clear duty of care. That is why people should sign this petition.”
I couldn’t agree more. My eldest is off to university this year, and the thought of her not being properly looked after there truly frightens me. It is high time that student welfare programmes evolve beyond a glib PR exercise: our young people need to have effective safeguarding mechanisms in place so that they are no longer simply allowed to slip into the void of all-consuming despondency.
The Conservatives may be afraid to be seen imposing any red tape, but surely every right-thinking person will see that what we are talking about here is not a bureaucratic but a moral failing on the part of universities – and that the optics of this government doing nothing to protect our young people is much worse, especially when this generation is already bearing so much of the brunt of other political failings.
I defy anyone to read the ForThe100 story, look at the faces and read the stories of the students lost to suicide, and not feel profoundly moved and a deep sense of anger at the current state of affairs. Here at TBD, many of our team members have been affected by the issue of student suicide in some way. This is one of the reasons why we have decided to very vocally support the #ForThe100 campaign. And we would love it if you would too, by doing two things:
- Please could you take a minute out of your day to sign the Forthe100 petition here?
- Please spread the word within your networks and raise awareness of the Forthe100 campaign. Post about this issue on your LinkedIn page, use the hashtag #Forthe100, and let’s get the 100,000 signatures needed for the petition to be debated before Parliament.
If the petition doesn’t get 100,000 signatures by 19th March, it will fail and we’ll be back to square one.
And if you have time, you can also attend one of the three candlelight vigils that Forthe100 is organising to commemorate all the students who have lost their lives to suicide. The vigils will take place at 7pm on Saturday 4 March a the following locations:
- University of London – Senate House Library, WC1E 7HU
- University of Bristol – Wills Memorial Building, BS8 1RJ
- University of Edinburgh – McEwan Hall EH8 9AG
My youngest and I have already lit a candle for Natasha and the other students lost to suicide. And on Saturday 4th March, I will be outside the University of Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building with my fellow campaigners. Maybe I will see you there?
Addleshaw Goddard expends a Penney
As of 1 May 2023, Addleshaw Goddard will be under new management when current senior partner Charles Penney makes way for Aster Crawshaw, who was made partner at the firm in 2010.
AG is bound to benefit from Crawshaw’s profound experience of working with professional services firms – this is a specialism for which he was recognised in The Lawyer’s Hot 100 in 2017, where he was singled out as one of the UK’s only partners dedicated to professional services work.
Crawshaw also happens to be one the country’s best-known partnership advisors and has acted on many law firm partnership issues and LLP conversions over the years. He therefore knows the ins and outs and the history of most law-firm partnerships and the challenges they have faced. This knowledge alone will no doubt stand him in very good stead when managing the future fortunes of AG.
Re-elected as senior partner in 2019, Charles Penney’s second and final term at the helm will end on 30 April. He leaves AG in ship-shape condition – last year’s City Firm of the Year win at The Lawyer Awards is a fine feather in his cap.
Post of the week – is the legal profession a real-life version of Squid Game?
This week, Business Law professor Thomas Freeman addressed the toxic work culture that pervades much of the legal profession. In his LinkedIn post, Freeman likens the culture at many firms to a “real-life version of Squid Game, where the only way to ‘win’ is by being willing to work more hours than your peers. The ‘prize’ for sacrificing time with friends and family, on exercise and wellness, or pursuing hobbies or other interests…is yet more work.”
What a hellscape. Freeman goes on to cite a study conducted by researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Psychiatry into suicide risk among nearly 2,000 lawyers in California and the District of Columbia. The study found that the subjects were at high risk of alcoholism and drug abuse, mental illness, physical health problems, failed marriages, broken families and suicide. What great prizes for ‘winning’ the game…
I know that, of course, not all law firms are like this. Thank goodness. And the SRA’s recent announcement of its crackdown on toxic workplace environments will hopefully help to shift the deeply ingrained attitudes within certain sections of the industry. But it does seem to me that universities aren’t the only institutions that routinely fail their most precious assets.
The little guys get muscled
Independent law firms continue to feel the pressure in the current economic climate. The SRA has closed Fletcher Day “with immediate effect” after the London-based commercial and family practice with 33 employees was issued with a winding-up petition by HMRC.
Fletcher Day is merely the latest small firm either to end up in serious financial difficulties – like the Metamorph Group, which had four of its businesses shut down by the SRA in December – or be snapped up by an acquisitive larger business – such as Bristol-based Meade King, acquired by Knights in January – in recent months. It’s a tough old world out there right now for the little guys.
Put your best foot forward
It’s that time of year again: The Lawyer Awards 2023 are calling for nominations. Why not enter and get your firm the recognition you and your team deserve? And if you need help drafting your nomination, we’re happy to help – we have a proven track record of getting firms shortlisted.
Just a quick reminder – please sign the Forthe100 e-peition here.