Court rules that mental incapacity is not a bar to equal medical treatment

Learning difficulties charities have heralded as a landmark
decision last week’s ruling by the High Court that people with
learning difficulties should receive the same medical treatment as
everyone else.

Judge Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss ruled that a hospital had been
wrong to deny life-saving medical treatment and only provide
palliative care to S, who has a kidney failure, on the basis that
he has autism.

The family of S were unhappy with the hospital’s recommendation in
December 2002 that he receive no new forms of dialysis or a kidney
transplant because of his severe learning difficulty. Their local
social services department – which cannot be named – supported
their legal challenge.

Butler-Sloss, president of the High Court’s family division, said
that not providing satisfactory medical treatment was contrary to
the rights of a mentally incapacitated patient under UK and
European law.

She added: “In my judgement, a kidney transplantation ought not to
be rejected on the grounds of his inability to understand the
purpose and consequence of the operation or concerns about the
management of his behaviour.

“It is crucial that S, suffering as he does, from serious physical
and mental problems, is not given less satisfactory treatment than
a person who has full capacity to understand the risks, the pain
and discomfort inseparable from such major surgery.”

David Congdon, head of campaigns and policy at Mencap, said to deny
treatment to someone because they had a disability was “an assault
on their basic human rights”.

Jean Collins, director of campaigning charity Values into Action,
added: “Hospitals have always taken it upon themselves to decide
which patients should have their resources. This will make
hospitals think again before they write-off someone with learning

Association of Directors of Social Services spokesperson on
learning difficulties John Dixon said that a lack of understanding
of the needs of people with learning difficulties led to problems
ensuring they received proper levels of health care. “It takes that
little bit extra attention from NHS staff to recognise the needs of
people with learning difficulties and if they don’t do that they
are not maximising their potential,” he said.

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