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Right to refuse medical treatment enforced by the NSW Supreme Court

In March 2014 the Supreme Court of New South Wales heard a case brought by Hunter New England Local Health District on behalf of John Hunter Hospital regarding the provision of life sustaining medical treatment to a man with quadriplegia.

The 27 year-old man, known as JS, had suffered from quadriplegia from the age of 7 and could only breathe via a ventilator.

As his medical condition worsened and his treatment became less effective, JS gave John Hunter Hospital a signed authority asking for the life support treatment he received to be turned off on his 28th birthday.

JS had been living as an outpatient until March 2013 when he was admitted to John Hunter Hospital’s intensive care unit with ventilator-associated pneumonia and the collaps of his left lung. Over the next few months, he suffered repeated episodes of autonomic dysreflexia, an involuntary reaction by the nervous system, associated with extreme respiratory distress.

In a statement read in Court, JS declared “over the past two years, my body has begun to deteriorate rapidly and because of this I have also begun losing my quality of life… There have always been difficulties and compromises that I have met, but now that degeneration is outpacing the countermeasures, which is why I have spent the last three months in hospital. It is because of this that I have come to the conclusion that I want to explore the legal options of withdrawal of life-sustaining therapy.” 

Judge Darke dismissed concerns from hospital staff that in carrying out JS’s wishes they might be aiding and abetting suicide, which is a criminal offence in New South Wales.

He confirmed that an individual has a right to have autonomy over their own body and referred to an earlier NSW Court of Appeal decision which states that “the legal concept of suicide, being the intentional taking of one’s own life, is not engaged in circumstances where medical assistance is refused, even in the knowledge of certain death”. 

Following the Court judgement, hospital staff turned off JS’s ventilator in accordance with his wishes and it is understood that he died shortly thereafter.

This case is a strong example of the enforceability of ‘Advance Care Directives’ made by people of sound mind who wish to make their wishes known about medical treatment in end of life situations that may confront them.

For more information regarding estate planning including Wills, Enduring Powers of AttorneyAppointments of Enduring Guardian and Advance Care Directives, please contact Geoff Brazel at Brazel Moore Lawyers on (02) 4324 7699.

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