The Neon Roberts case – could an adult refuse medical treatment?

Year Published: 2012

The court recently ruled in the case of a seven year old boy with a brain tumour that he should undergo urgent surgery. See BBC article here. In this case, the mother refused treatment for her son as she was concerned it would cause long term harm including causing brain damage and infertility.

As the patient is a minor (i.e. under the age of 18 years) he lacks “legal capacity” to make the decision himself which is why the court got involved and in turn had to decide what course of action would be in the patient’s best interests. Following an MRI scan which revealed a newly found growth, the doctor said it was highly likely that the patient would die within a relatively short period of time if further treatment was not received.

Had the patient been an adult, over the age of 18, the situation would have been quite different as he would have had legal capacity to make the decision himself. If Neon was an adult and had made the decision not to undergo treatment, the question would have been one of “mental capacity”, for if a person has mental capacity, their decision would be valid regardless of what is in their best interest – even if it resulted in death.

If a patient lacks mental capacity due to being unable to communicate for example, the next port of call is to check whether there is an Advanced Decision and/or a Health & Welfare Lasting Power of Attorney in place. An Advanced Decision allows a patient to refuse treatment, for example some Jehovah’s Witnesses elect to not receive donated blood products. A Lasting Power of Attorney appoints someone to make decisions on the patient’s behalf.

If you are concerned about treatment that you may have in future and want to put safeguards in place to ensure your wishes will be adhered too, both of these legal documents will allow someone to carry out your wishes on your behalf.

For more information, please contact our Wills & Wealth Planning team on 01625 442148.

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