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Court of Appeal decides in favour of doctors in 'right to life case'

The General Medical Council has won its appeal against a decision that gave Leslie Burke, a seriously-ill man, the right to stop doctors withdrawing food and drink. Patient Concern were represented in the case by Leigh Day Human Rights lawyer, Richard Stein.

Leslie Burke Leslie has taken the GMC to court over their Guidelines to doctors

28 July 2005

The General Medical Council (GMC) has won its appeal against a decision made earlier in the year which would stop doctors removing feeding and hydration tubes in the terminally ill if it was against their will.

The case involved Leslie Burke who has a degenerative brain disease, cerebellar ataxia, and is worried that when he loses his power to communicate, doctors will decide that it is in his best interest to withdraw food and water. He believes that only he has the right to make that decision.

Guidance on withdrawing or withholding life-prolonging treatment

The previous court ruling was a review of the GMC's guidance on withdrawing or withholding life-prolonging treatment, and stated that the guidance was unlawful because it failed 'to acknowledge the heavy presumption in favour of life-prolonging treatment.'

The GMC appealed against the decision on the basis that doctors needed clearer guidance on the subject and that it could put them in an impossible position.

Professor Sir Graeme Catto, President of the GMC, said ”Patients should be reassured by this judgement which emphasises the partnership needed to resolve end of life issues.

“Our guidance makes it clear that patients should never be discriminated against on the grounds of disability. And we have always said that causing patients to die from starvation and dehydration is absolutely unacceptable practice and unlawful.

“The Court has reinforced our position on these points. In the light of the judgement we shall look at what further steps we can take to explain and promote good practice in this area”

The Court of Appeal ruling is seen as a huge setback for patients' rights, putting the decision on whether patients live or die back in the hands of the doctors.

Joyce Robins, co-director of the human rights campaign group Patient Concern, said: "Doctors again have extraordinary power over us, making decisions on how and when we die."

Patient Concern, who had leave to intervene in the case of Leslie Burke, were represented by Richard Stein, partner in the Human Rights Department at Leigh Day & Co.

For more information please call 020 7650 1200.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.

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