Causes and consequences of delays in treatment-withdrawal from PVS patients: a case study of Cumbria NHS Clinical Commissioning Group v Miss S and Ors [2016] EWCOP 32

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Abstract

Life-extending treatment, in the form of artificial nutrition and hydration, is often provided to people in permanent vegetative states (PVS) in England and Wales for many years, even when their family believes the patient would not want it and despite the fact that no court in the UK has ever found in favour of continuing such treatment for a patient with a confirmed PVS diagnosis. The first half of this article presents a close analysis of the recent case of Cumbria NHS Clinical Commissioning Group v Miss S and Ors [2016] EWCOP 32. It examines the causes of delay in bringing this case to court and reaching a final judgment. It draws not only on the published judgment, but also on the two authors' involvement in supporting the family (before, during and subsequent to the court hearings) as a result of their academic and policy-related work in this area. This includes conversations with the family and with members of the clinical and legal teams, and observations in court. The second part of the article draws out the ethical and practical implications of the findings for theory and policy and suggests ways forward in relation to (a) the provision and inspection of care for these patients; (b) legal practice in relation to ‘best interests’ and (c) the perceived requirement under English law for a court application before life-prolonging treatment can be withdrawn from PVS patients—even in the absence of any ‘in principle’ opposition.

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