Advance Directives Refusing Treatment As an Expression of Autonomy: Do the Courts Practise What They Preach?
Common Law World Review, 38(4), pp. 295-341
47 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2016
Date Written: 2009
The principle of autonomy is at the heart of the right of a competent individual to make an advance directive that refuses life-sustaining medical treatment, and to have that directive complied with by medical professionals. That right is protected by both the common law and, to an extent, by legislation that has been enacted in the United Kingdom and many jurisdictions in Australia. The courts have a critical role in protecting that autonomy, both in those jurisdictions in which the common law continues to operate, and in those jurisdictions which are now governed by statute, and in which judicial determinations will need to be made about legislative provisions. The problem explored in this article is that while the judiciary espouses the importance of autonomy in its judgments, that rhetoric is frequently not reflected in the decisions that are reached. In the United Kingdom and Australia, there is a relatively small number of decisions that consider the validity and applicability of advance directives that refuse life-sustaining medical treatment. This article critically evaluates all of the publicly available decisions and concludes that there is cause for concern. In some cases, there has been an unprincipled evolution of common law principles, while in others there has been inappropriate adjudication through operational irregularities or failure to apply correct legal principles. Further, some decisions appear to be based on a strained interpretation of the facts of the case. The apparent reluctance of some members of the judiciary to give effect to advance directives that refuse treatment is also evidenced by the language used in the judgments. While the focus of this article is on common law decisions, reference will also be made to legislation and the extent to which it has addressed some of the problems identified in this article.
Keywords: medical law, advance directives, autonomy, self-determination, withholding and withdrawing treatment, life-sustaining medical treatment
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