‘Do not resuscitate’ – landmark decision

Posted: 19th November 2015

SurgeryThere are more important things than money and sometimes judges deliver moral victories as well as financial ones.

In Winspear v City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, the High Court has ruled that a disabled young man’s human rights were violated when a ‘do not resuscitate’ notice was placed on his medical file without his mother’s consent.

The 28-year-old man suffered from cerebral palsy and was dependent on others for all his care needs. He was being treated in hospital for a chest infection when the notice was issued in the early hours of the morning. The relevant doctor took the view that, if the worst happened, attempts at resuscitation would be distressing, painful, undignified and ultimately futile.

The notice was removed after about 10 hours when it became clear that his mother would object to it. He later suffered a fatal cardiac arrest and, when his mother found out about the notice, she said that it had compounded her grief. Lawyers on her behalf launched proceedings against the NHS trust which ran the hospital.

Ruling in her favour, the Court found that she should have been informed before such a crucial decision was made, even if that meant phoning her in the middle of the night. Although she did not have a veto in respect of her son’s treatment plan, she should have been consulted and the Court made a formal declaration that the failure to do so amounted to a breach of her son’s human rights.

The good faith of the doctor's clinical decision was not disputed; the notice had been withdrawn before the man died and its imposition had had no impact on his actual treatment or the timing and manner of his death. In those circumstances, the Court was not satisfied that the mother was entitled to damages.