Human rights watchdog intervenes in ‘do not resuscitate’ case

Man alleges medical staff unlawfully issued orders without consent of his wife, who died at Addenbrooke’s hospital

The UK’s human rights watchdog is intervening in a landmark case over the use of “do not resuscitate” orders for NHS patients.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is an independent party to the case being brought by the husband of a woman who died in Addenbrooke’s hospital, Cambridge, last year.

David Tracey alleges medical staff at the hospital unlawfully issued two such orders without the consent of his 63-year-old wife, Janet, or discussion with her and that by doing so deprived her of her right to life and subjected her to degrading treatment. He also says that he was thereby denied respect for his personal and family life.

The Cambridge University Hospitals NHS trust, to which Addenbrooke’s belongs, and the Department of Health deny acting unlawfully under the 1998 Human Rights Act and dispute the Tracey family’s account of what happened at the hospital.

David Tracey also wants to force the government to draw up a national policy on the use of instructions not to attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation (DNRs), which are issued on thousands of patients each year. The government insists the matter is better left to existing national professional guidance backed up by local trust policies. The Care Quality Commission, the NHS watchdog, has recently warned a number of hospitals to improve their recording of DNRs.

The EHRC generally intervenes only in cases where it can use its expertise to clarify or challenge an important element of the law. These usually involve serious matters of public policy or general public concern.

Merry Varney, a solicitor at Leigh Day & Co, who is representing the Tracey family, said after a preliminary hearing on Friday: “This case underlines the importance of a transparent, accessible and consistent policy regarding a patient’s right to know when a decision not to resuscitate them is made and to know how their views are taken into account and, where necessary, how to challenge a decision they disagree with.

“In this case we claim that neither family member or patient were consulted on whether a DNR order was placed on Mrs Tracey’s medical records.

“However the hospital claim they had the permission of a family member. The wider issue for society is that unless specifically authorised by the patient, it cannot be right that a family member can agree to a DNR and seems perverse considering the laws regarding euthanasia and the concerns often tabled in such debates of the risk of abuse from inheritance hungry relatives.

“We are not suggesting in this case that every patient has the right to demand cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but I do believe that in this day and age of patient choice and transparency, a competent patient must surely know when a decision to withhold potentially life sustaining treatment has been made.”

David Tracey said: “Following the first anniversary of Janet’s death I am pleased that progress is being made to clarify how DNRs can be used for patients and their families.”

A full hearing of the judicial review will take place at the high court in London later this year.


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