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Ethics briefing
  1. Martin Davies,
  2. Ruth Campbell,
  3. Sophie Brannan,
  4. Veronica English,
  5. Rebecca Mussell,
  6. Julian C Sheather
  1. Department of Medical Ethics and Human Rights, British Medical Association, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Martin Davies, Department of Medical Ethics and Human Rights, British Medical Association, London WC1H 9JP, UK; mdavies{at}bma.org.uk

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UK Supreme Court rules on clinically assisted nutrition and hydration

The Supreme Court has ruled in the case of Y that there is no requirement to seek the approval of the Court of Protection in decisions to withdraw clinically assisted nutrition and hydration (CANH) from patients in a prolonged disorder of consciousness (PDOC).1

Mr Y was 52-year-old man who suffered a cardiac arrest after a myocardial infarction as a result of coronary artery disease. It was not possible to resuscitate him for well over 10 min, resulting in severe cerebral hypoxia which caused extensive brain damage. Mr Y’s family and the NHS Trust treating him agreed that Mr Y would not want to be kept alive through the provision of CANH given his poor prognosis. They sought a declaration that it was not mandatory for applications of withdrawal of CANH to come before the court, which was granted by Mrs Justice O’Farrell in the first instance.2

Permission was granted for the appeal to ‘leapfrog’ the Court of Appeal and to proceed to the Supreme Court for consideration. In the interim, Mr Y died after contracting acute respiratory sepsis, but the Supreme Court determined that the appeal should go ahead in light of the general importance of the issues raised.

In delivering the opinion of the Supreme Court on 30 July 2018, Lady Justice Black rejected the historical distinction that had been drawn between patients in PDOC and non-PDOC patients, in a way that had justified judicial involvement for patients in PDOC but not for others.3 She was clear that the correct approach to all cases involving CANH was to make a decision based on what was in the best interests of the patient. She further outlined that:

The documentation supplied to us shows that the difficulty that there is in assessing the patient and in …

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