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Major changes to end of life care Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court rules this week that a judge will no longer need to be consulted when doctors and relatives agree life-support should end.

Judges will no longer need to be consulted when doctors and relatives of patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state agree life-support treatment should end.

Until now families of such patients seeking to end life support would have to make an application to the Court of Protection which has historically been a lengthy and costly process with the outcome being uncertain.

A legal challenge by the official solicitor – the office that helps people who are vulnerable because of their lack of mental capacity or age in their dealings with the justice system – was brought in the face of opposition by the family and doctors of a man who was identified only as “Mr Y”.

The case was accelerated through to the UK’s highest court because of his condition, but he died before it could be heard. The court nonetheless listened to legal arguments because, it said, this was an important issue that needed to be resolved.

Mr Y had a cardiac arrest last June aged 52. Before then, he was very active, despite working long hours in a stressful profession. After the cardiac arrest, he was said to be unaware of himself and his environment. It was deemed highly improbable that he would regain consciousness.

His wife, their two children and his brother and sister, the high court had previously heard, all accepted Mr Y would not want to live in a vegetative or minimally conscious state with profound disabilities. His doctors agreed.

Richard Gordon QC, for the official solicitor, argued that common law or human rights law required that every case involving the withdrawal of treatment be the subject of a best interests application, regardless of whether there is a dispute.

Delivering judgment, Lady Black said:

“Having looked at the issue in its wider context, as well as from a narrower legal perspective, I do not consider that it has been established that the common law or the European convention on human rights … give rise to the mandatory requirement, for which the official solicitor contends, to involve the court to decide upon the best interests of every patient with a prolonged disorder of consciousness before CANH [clinically assisted nutrition and hydration] can be withdrawn.

“If, at the end of the medical process, it is apparent that the way forward is finely balanced, or there is a difference of medical opinion, or a lack of agreement to a proposed course of action from those with an interest in the patient’s welfare, a court application can and should be made …

“This possibility of approaching a court in the event of doubts as to the best interests of the patient is an essential part of the protection of human rights.”

This ruling will likely affect hundreds of patients and their families.

Swain & Co’s highly experienced lawyers, including Clinical Negligence & Court of Protection teams regularly assist patients and their families following life changing injuries. 

If you or a family member have suffered an injury, been the victim of a medical mistake or believe that you need to make an application to the Court of Protection call today on 023 92 483322 or 023 80 631111  for free expert advice.

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