Court Ruling no longer needed before life-support is withdrawn from patients with severe illnesses

In a landmark ruling a judge has ruled that in future, in decisions concerning the withdrawal of life-support, including artificial feeding and hydration, a judge’s consent is no longer required in cases where medical opinion and relative’s wishes agree that the cessation is in the patient’s best interests.  The story is reported widely, including by the BBC and the Guardian.

MDMD cautiously welcomes this ruling. Medical professionals are generally the best qualified to make such decisions. Good professional conduct would ensure they take the views of relatives into consideration.

However, making a life preserving or a life ending decision for someone unable to make the choice for themselves, in their best interests, is a huge responsibility which is very difficult for both doctors and for relatives. In the vast majority of cases, both are likely to play safe, quite probably prolonging life for much longer that the patient might want.

But what if medics and relatives do not agree? These situations are not covered by this particular ruling. The end of life process can be even more drawn out and even more difficult, involving the courts. The tragic case of Paul Briggs illustrates this.

Far better for every one of us to make our wishes known clearly in advance, to cover possible future situations in which we have lost our mental capacity and are suffering from an incurable condition which means that our future quality of life will never return to a level we would find acceptable. This can be done today by making an Advance Decision to Refuse Treatment (ADRT). Not only is it a legal requirement for medics to follow a person’s wishes expressed in a valid ADRT, but the document gives certainty to both doctors and relatives, that by following what the person has stated, they are doing what the patient wants – surely a huge relief for both groups.

An ADRT can include a refusal of artificial life-support, in situations the person chooses. This can therefore be used to hasten their death, avoiding delay or possible involvement of the courts. Too few people are aware that this is a right we already have, without any recourse to the recent legal ruling.

MDMD urges everyone, regardless or age or health, to make an ADRT to specify their treatment wishes, should they be unable to make a decision at the time. Once complete, copies should be given to your GP and relatives. The ADRT should be reviewed and updated periodically. ADRTs can be completed at no cost, and free personal advice is available if needed. For more information see our page on end of life planning.