Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

The courts' role in decisions about medical treatment

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 18 November 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1282
  1. Laurence Oates (, official solicitor to Supreme Court
  1. Official Solicitor's Office, London WC2A 1DD
  • Accepted 10 July 2000

Each year there are about 20 cases in the family division of the High Court in England and Wales concerning whether medical procedures should be carried out on people who are unable, or refuse, to consent to such treatment. This article examines how and why these cases need to, and do, go to court.

There are three types of cases, those in which:

  • Medical opinion is that a particular course of treatment will save life—this includes whether blood transfusion should be given, a caesarean section should be performed, or even a heart transplant should be ordered against the known views of the patient

  • Medical opinion is that consistently with the duty owed to the patient an aspect of treatment should be terminated so as to allow that patient to die peaceably— this centres round the termination of artificial feeding and hydration for patients in permanent vegetative states

  • Those caring for a patient, supported by medical opinion, wish for a particular operation to be carried out to enhance the quality of life of the patient or to ensure improvement or prevent deterioration in his or her physical or mental health—this most commonly concerns whether sterilisation of a patient who is unable to consent should be carried out.

In legal proceedings I am brought in as a state funded lawyer to represent those who need a guardian ad litem or litigation friend (primarily children and mentally incapacitated people), or I may be asked by the court to assist as an amicus. The history of my office can be traced back to mediaeval times when the state first recognised the need for representation of an incapacitated person when a benevolent relative or friend could not be found to act on his or her behalf. The cases concerning medical treatment, of much more recent …

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