Health

Death plea case rejected by judge

  • 28 September 2011
  • From the section Health
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A High Court judge has ruled that a brain-damaged woman should not be allowed to die, in what is being seen as a landmark case.

The woman, who is 52 and can be referred to only as M, is in what is known as a "minimally conscious state".

Her family argued she was in pain and that artificial feeding and hydration should be withdrawn.

The Official Solicitor and the health authority responsible for her care opposed the application.

Mr Justice Baker, who heard legal argument during a Court of Protection hearing in London in July, said the case was unique and raised "very important issues of principle".

Edge of awareness

M had "some positive experiences", he said, and there was a "reasonable prospect" that those experiences could be extended.

Mr Justice Baker said: "The factor which does carry substantial weight, in my judgement, is the preservation of life. Although not an absolute rule, the law regards the preservation of life as a fundamental principle."

A spokesman for the law firm representing M's family said the law had been clarified.

Yogi Amin, a partner with the law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: "This is a very important judgment. The law has been clarified and, going forward, in all such cases of patients who are in a minimally conscious state, the High Court does now have the power to decide on whether it is in that patient's best interests for treatment to continue, or whether the patient should be allowed to die naturally, with dignity."

M became severely brain damaged eight-and-a-half years ago. She is unable to talk and had been thought to be in a vegetative state, with no awareness or consciousness of her surroundings.

However subsequent tests indicated that she is in a "minimally conscious state" - on the edge of awareness.

She is now being looked after in a care home in the north of England.

Relatives wanted life-supporting treatment to be withdrawn, saying she would not want to live "a life dependent on others".

But a lawyer appointed by the High Court to represent the woman opposed their application for nutrition to be withdrawn, saying she is "otherwise clinically stable".

The local health authority responsible for commissioning her care also opposed the application, saying the 52-year-old's life was "not without positive elements".

In 1993 the House of Lords ruled that doctors need not keep someone alive if it was viewed that it was of no benefit to the patient. That case was crucial in determining that feeding tubes could be regarded as medical treatment.

Since 1993, a total of 43 patients in a persistent vegetative state, or PVS, have died after a judge ordered that treatment could be withdrawn.

This case is different because M is minimally conscious.

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