J was born at 27 weeks’, weighing only 1.1kg. He suffered very severe and permanent brain damage at the time of his birth, the brain tissue then lost being irreplaceable. He was epileptic and the medical evidence was that he was likely to develop serious spastic quadriplegia, would be blind and deaf and was unlikely ever to be able to speak or to develop even limited intellectual abilities. It was, however, likely that he would feel pain to the same extent as a normal baby. His life expectancy was uncertain but he was expected to die before late adolescence, although he could survive for a few years. He had been ventilated twice for long periods when his breathing stopped, that treatment being both painful and hazardous. The medical prognosis was that any further collapse which required ventilation would be fatal. However he was neither on the point of death nor dying. The question thus arose as to whether, if he suffered a further collapse, the medical staff at the hospital where he was being cared for should re-ventilate him in the event that he stopped breathing.
Held: The court could, exercising its wardship jurisdiction, authorise the withholding of medical treatment from a child which would result in the child’s life being threatened, provided that any continued life for the child with treatment would be intolerable. The court identified three preliminary steps. The first was that welfare is the court’s paramount consideration. ‘Secondly, the court’s high respect for the sanctity of human life imposes a strong presumption in favour of taking all steps capable of preserving it, save in exceptional circumstances. The problem is to define those circumstances. Thirdly, and as a corollary to the second principle, it cannot be too strongly emphasised that the court never sanctions steps to terminate life. That would be unlawful. There is no question of approving, even in a case of the most horrendous disability, a course aimed at terminating life or accelerating death. The court is concerned only with the circumstances in which steps should not be taken to prolong life.’ (Taylor LJ) and ‘I consider the correct approach is for the court to judge the quality of life the child would have to endure if given the treatment and decide whether in all the circumstances such a life would be so afflicted as to be intolerable to that child. I say ‘to that child’ because the test should not be whether the life would be tolerable to the decider. The test must be whether the child in question, if capable of exercising sound judgment, would consider the life tolerable.’
The court could not ‘require the [health] authority to follow a particular course of treatment. What the court can do is to withhold consent to treatment of which it disapproves and it can express its approval of other treatment proposed by the authority and its doctors.’
Lord Donaldson of Lymington MR: ‘Re B seems to me to come very near to being a binding authority for the proposition that there is a balancing exercise to be performed in assessing the course to be adopted in the best interests of the child.
This brings me face to face with the problem of formulating the critical equation. In truth it cannot be done with mathematical or any precision. There is without doubt a very strong presumption in favour of a course of action which will prolong life, but even excepting the ‘cabbage’ case to which special considerations may well apply, it is not irrebuttable. As this court recognised in In re B., account has to be taken of the pain and suffering and quality of life which the child will experience if life is prolonged. Account has also to be taken of the pain and suffering involved in the proposed treatment itself. B was probably not a borderline case and I do not think that we are bound to, or should, treat Templeman LJ’s use of the words ‘demonstrably so awful’ or Dunn LJ’s use of the word ‘intolerable’ as providing a quasi-statutory yardstick.
. . we know that the instinct and desire for survival is very strong. We all believe in and assert the sanctity of human life. As explained, this formulation takes account of this and also underlines the need to avoid looking at the problem from the point of view of the decider, but instead requires him to look at it from the assumed point of view of the patient. This gives effect, as it should, to the fact that even very severely handicapped people find a quality of life rewarding which to the unhandicapped may seem manifestly intolerable. People have an amazing adaptability. But in the end there will be cases in which the answer must be that it is not in the interests of the child to subject it to treatment which will cause increased suffering and produce no commensurate benefit, giving the fullest possible weight to the child’s, and mankind’s, desire to survive.
I make no apology for having spent time on the generality of the problem which faces doctors and the court in cases of this nature. The Official Solicitor invited us to do so and if we can succeed in achieving any degree of clarification, it will be worthwhile in terms of assisting those who have to make these very difficult decisions at short notice and in distressing circumstances. However, I now turn to the instant appeal.
The issue here is whether it would be in the best interests of the child to put him on a mechanical ventilator and subject him to all the associated processes of intensive care, if at some future time he could not continue breathing unaided.’
Lord Donaldson of Lymington MR
(1991) Fam 33,  3 All ER 930,  2 WLR 140, Times 03-Oct-1990,  1 FLR
England and Wales
Considered – In Re B (A Minor) (Wardship: Medical Treatment) CA 1981
The child was born with Down’s Syndrome and an intestinal blockage. She needed the obstruction to be relieved if she was to survive. If the operation were performed, the child might die within a few months but it was probable that her life . .
Considered – Re C (Wardship: Medical Treatment) (No 2) CA 1989
The court had already made an order about the way in which the health professionals were able to look after a severely disabled baby girl; an injunction was granted prohibiting identification of the child, her parents, her current carers and the . .
Cited – Regina (on the Application of Pretty) v Director of Public Prosecutions and Secretary of State for the Home Department HL 29-Nov-2001
The applicant was terminally ill, and entirely dependent upon her husband for care. She foresaw a time when she would wish to take her own life, but would not be able to do so without the active assistance of her husband. She sought a proleptic . .
Cited – Airedale NHS Trust v Bland CA 9-Dec-1992
The official Solicitor appealed against a decision that doctors could withdraw medical treatment including artificial nutrition, from a patient in persistent vegetative state.
Held: The doctors sought permission to act in accordance with . .
Cited – Airedale NHS Trust v Bland HL 4-Feb-1993
Procedures on Withdrawal of Life Support Treatment
The patient had been severely injured in the Hillsborough disaster, and had come to be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). The doctors sought permission to withdraw medical treatment. The Official Solicitor appealed against an order of the Court . .
Cited – In Re A (Minors) (Conjoined Twins: Medical Treatment); aka In re A (Children) (Conjoined Twins: Surgical Separation) CA 22-Sep-2000
Twins were conjoined (Siamese). Medically, both could not survive, and one was dependent upon the vital organs of the other. Doctors applied for permission to separate the twins which would be followed by the inevitable death of one of them. The . .
Cited – Portsmouth NHS Trust v Wyatt and others FD 7-Oct-2004
Charlotte Wyatt was born prematurely, and depended for day to day her life on medical support. Her doctors asked to be permitted not to resuscitate her again if she needed it. Her parents asked that she be given whatever chance was available for her . .
Cited – Burke, Regina (on the Application of) v General Medical Council and others (Official Solicitor and others intervening) CA 28-Jul-2005
The claimant suffered a congenital degenerative brain condition inevitably resulting in a future need to receive nutrition and hydration by artificial means. He was concerned that a decision might be taken by medical practitioners responsible for . .
Cited – Aintree University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust v James SC 30-Oct-2013
The hospital where a gravely ill man had been treated had asked for a declaration that it would be in his best interests to withhold certain life-sustaining treatments from him. When can it be in the best interests of a living patient to withhold . .
Cited – Nicklinson and Another, Regina (on The Application of) SC 25-Jun-2014
Criminality of Assisting Suicide not Infringing
The court was asked: ‘whether the present state of the law of England and Wales relating to assisting suicide infringes the European Convention on Human Rights, and whether the code published by the Director of Public Prosecutions relating to . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.
Updated: 13 December 2021; Ref: scu.180089