Court backs right for families to end life support

When both medical staff and the patients’ family agree life support can now be ended without seeking court permission

When both medical staff and the patients’ family agree life support can now be ended without seeking court permission Stefan Wermuth Reuters

Relatives of people in a permanent vegetative state will no longer have to seek legal permission to end their care, the Supreme Court has ruled.

A ruling that a man with an extensive brain injury should be allowed to die without his family going before a judge has been upheld by the UK's highest court.

"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 ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights), in combination or separately, give rise to the mandatory requirement to involve the court to decide upon the best interests of every patient", Lady Black said as part of the unanimous ruling of five Supreme Court justices. The 52-year-old man, identified as Mr. Y, has been in a coma since suffering a heart attack.

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When families and doctors agree it's in the best interests of the patient, medical staff will be able to remove feeding tubes without applying to the Court of Protection. Experts agreed that even if he had regained consciousness, he'd have profound disabilities. Although Mr Y died in the intervening period, the importance of issues raised by the case meant the appeal went ahead.

The judge agreed, but the official solicitor appealed on behalf of Mr Y - an appeal which has now been dismissed.

"If the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act are followed and the relevant guidance observed, and if there is agreement upon what is in the best interests of the patient, the patient may be treated in accordance with that agreement without application to the court", she said.

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Tom Lax, a senior solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp, said the judgement, which mentions the costs to the health service of court cases, threatened to reduce legal and moral concerns to political ones.

Lady Black acknowledged that there could be occasional cases in which circumstances would make an application required or desirable, but said that generally decisions such as those involving Mr Y should be made without court input.

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