In a landmark judgement, the UK Supreme Court today ruled that legal permission will no longer be required to end care for patients in a long-term permanent vegetative state.
The ruling makes it easier to withdraw food and liquid to allow such patients to die when families and doctors are in agreement. Medical staff will now be able to remove feeding tubes in such cases without having to apply to the Court of Protection, under previous laws.
Currently, both euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in the UK with the only exception “passive euthanasia” – when treatment that might extend someone’s life is withdrawn.
Lady Black, heading a five-judge bench in the case, said an agreement between families and doctors was sufficient safeguard to ensure “public confidence”.
“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.
However, she urged families to apply to court “where there are differences of view” between relatives or medical professionals.
The ruling by the UK’s highest court upholds a judgement on the end-of-life decision-making of a man with extensive brain injury. The 52-year-old man, who can only be identified as Mr Y, had been in a vegetative state since June 2017. Experts said it was improbable he would ever regain consciousness and agreed with family members’ decision to withdraw hydration and nutrition – something which usually requires approval from the Court of Protection.
His family and his doctors agreed it would be in his best interests to allow him to die by withdrawing his feeding tube. The NHS trust asked the UK High Court to declare that it was not necessary to apply to the Court of Protection for a decision when the doctors and the family all believe it is in the patient’s best interests.
The judge agreed, but the Official Solicitor – who represents people who lack capacity – appealed on behalf of Mr Y. That appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court on Monday, setting a legal precedent.