It is well known, and often the cause of heated debate, that assisted suicide is illegal within the United Kingdom. If a person is terminally ill and wishes to die, that person would have no rights under UK law to end their life with dignity. However, recent case law suggests that there may be a slight shift in how the Court of Protection handles a terminally ill patient.
Recently, the Supreme Court judged that a 52 year old man (Mr Y) with an extensive brain injury should be allowed to die without Mr Y’s family being forced to apply to the Court of Protection. At the time of the application, Mr Y was receiving clinically assisted nutrition and hydration and although Mr Y had died at the time of the appeal, it was deemed necessary for the appeal to proceed due to the importance of the issues raised.
For clarity, once clinically assisted nutrition and hydration is withdrawn, a person is generally expected to survive no more than two weeks. Following on from the Supreme Court ruling, it has now been agreed that where the family and medical practitioners are in agreement, it is no longer necessary for an application to be made to the Court of Protection.
This decision had also been taken in another case where a woman (M) who had suffered with Huntington disease for over 25 years was permanently residing in hospital and was in a minimally conscious state. The Supreme Court judged that the clinically assisted nutrition and hydration was withdrawn and M died shortly after. Following the decision, Jackson stated “There was no statutory obligation to bring the case to court … A mandatory litigation requirement may deflect clinicians and families from making true best-interests decisions and in some cases lead to inappropriate treatment continuing by default. Indeed, the present case stands as an example, in that M received continued CANH that neither her doctors nor her family thought was in her best interests for almost a year until a court decision was eventually sought.”
However, it is worth noting that the decision in M related specifically to those living on life support, as opposed to all ‘right to die’ cases.
It is becoming clear that there is a shift appearing from the way in which those who are terminally ill are treated by the courts. Previously, an application to the Court of Protection would be required to make a decision on the care received, however, now it appears that the best interests of the terminally ill patient will be put first without the requirement of an application.