Court permission not needed in right-to-die cases, rules High Court

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Sep 21, 2017
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The finding from a High Court judge came in the case of a woman with advanced Huntington’s disease

Lynne Cameron/PA

Relatives of patients on life-support will no longer need judicial approval for the withdrawal of treatment provided doctors agree, the High Court ruled yesterday in a landmark judgement.

In a ruling that comes after years of difficult cases before the courts, Mr Justice Peter Jackson found that permission from judges will not always be necessary.

His finding – which was welcomed by campaigners who have lobbied for changes in the law regarding the so-called right to die – came in the case of a woman with advanced Huntington’s disease. The woman – known as M -- died after her family successfully applied for permission for doctors to withdraw her treatment. 

The case was heard in June with the judgement released yesterday. 

Lawyers for the woman’s mother had applied to a judge at London's Court of Protection to grant hospital doctors permission to withdraw her treatment provided by a feeding tube and provide palliative care only. 

The woman’s family said that after suffering with Huntington's disease for more than 25 years, she had reached the point where she was completely unaware of the world around her and that she would not have wanted to be kept alive in that condition. Doctors and the family agreed that it would be in her best interests for the feeding tube to be withdrawn. 

But despite doctors at the Midlands hospital where she was a patient agreeing, the family’s legal team took the view that permission from the Court of Protection would be needed. 

The position as to when these cases must be brought to the court had previously been unclear. In 1993, permission was sought from the court in a landmark case of Antony Bland, a victim of the Hillsborough football stadium disaster, and since then many others have come before the courts. 

“This judgment has great legal significance,” said Caroline Barrett, a lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, the law firm that represented M’s family. 

She said that “if relatives and doctors are in agreement, and after following the medical guidelines issued by the Royal College of Physicians it is agreed that withdrawal of treatment is in the patient’s best interests, the court has confirmed that there is no legal requirement for a court order before the treatment can be withdrawn.”

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