Judges will no longer be required to give legal permission to end care for patients in a long-term permanent vegetative state if doctors and families agree, the Supreme Court has ruled.

When families and doctors agree, medical staff will be able to withdraw feeding tubes without the need to apply to the Court of Protection.

Lady Black ruled there was no violation under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). However, she urged families to still apply to the court “where there are differences of view” between relatives or medical professionals

The decision will make it easier to withdraw food and liquid and allow patients to die, which will reduce the stress on families and bring down legal costs for health authorities across the country.

The issue came in front of the Supreme Court after a middle-aged banker, known as Mr Y, suffered severe brain damage following a heart attack last year. The man’s family and doctors agreed that he would not recover from his vegetative state and believed it would be in his best interests to be allowed to die naturally by removing his feeding tube. He has since died from his injuries without the need to withdraw the tube, but the case continued so that a ruling could be made.

Professor of Clinical and Biomedical Ethics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Bobbie Farsides, commented: “Many people will feel grateful to Mr Y’s family for pursuing the legal case when they had their own personal tragedy to deal with. My thoughts are with them today.”

The NHS trust asked the High Court to declare that an application to the Court of protection was not needed as the family and doctors agreed that ending clinically assisted nutrition and hydration (CANH) would be in his best interests. The High Court judge agreed, but Mr Y’s official solicitor appealed to the Supreme Court. The appeal has now been dismissed, setting legal precedent for future cases.

The barristers at 39 Essex Chambers explain: “Following this decision, the position is now entirely clear. Where the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 are followed and the relevant guidance observed, and if there is agreement upon what is in the best interests of the patient, life-sustaining treatment (whether CANH or another form of such treatment) can be withdrawn (or withheld) without needing to make an application to the court.”

It is estimated that around 24,000 people in the UK are in a persistent vegetative or a minimally conscious state.

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