GROSS v. SWITZERLAND – 67810/10 – Chamber Judgment  ECHR 429 – Read judgment / press summary
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Swiss guidelines for doctors prescribing lethal drugs were too unclear and therefore breached article 8 ECHR, the right to private and family life. Ms Gross sought a prescription for a lethal drug to end her own life. She has no critical illness, but is elderly and feels that her quality of life is so low that she would like to commit suicide. The Swiss medical authorities refused to provide her with the prescription.
Assisted dying and the right to die have been firmly back in the spotlight this week, with the cases of Lamb and “Martin” going to the English and Wales Court of Appeal. Mr Lamb is taking up the point made by Tony Nicklinson in the High Court, before his death, that doctors should have a defence of necessity to murder charges in cases of assisted suicide. Mr Nicklinson’s widow, Jane, is continuing his fight too. The cases also challenge the current guidelines on when prosecution should be brought for assisting suicide. You can read more about the background to the right to die caselaw here.
Doogan and Wood v. NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Board  CSIH 36 – read judgment here
The Inner House of the Court of Session (the Scottish civil court of appeal) ruled last week that two midwives from Glasgow could not be required to delegate to, supervise or support staff on their labour ward who were involved in abortions.
The ruling makes it clear that the conscientious objection provision in s.4 of the Abortion Act 1967 has very broad scope. This probably means that the General Medical Council (GMC), the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) will all need to change their guidance on the subject, since the existing versions take a much narrower view. This judgment affects England and Wales as well as Scotland (since the Act covers all three countries), but not Northern Ireland.
The facts of the case, and the original decision of Lady Smith in the Outer House of the Court of Session are covered in our previous blog post here.
Y and Z (Children), 25 April 2013  EWHC 953 (Fam) – read judgment
Having children is a lottery. No judge or court in the land would sanction the regulation of childbearing, however feckless the parents, unsuitable the conditions for childrearing, or unpromising the genetic inheritance.
Adoption on the other hand is stringently regulated, set about with obstacles for prospective parents, and strictly scrutinised by an army of authorities backed up by specialist family courts and a battery of laws, statutory instruments and guidance papers. Usually the filtering is in one direction only: the suitability of the parents to the child or children up for adoption. But sometimes it goes the other way, and this case raises the fascinating and somewhat futuristic question of whether children’s chance of finding a suitable home might be increased by genetic testing.
The circumstances were somewhat exceptional here, since the local authority had ascertained from the biological father of the two young boys in question that they might have a chance of inheriting a rare genetic disorder of the central nervous system. Huntington’s Chorea is caused by a single gene mutation on chromosome IV and causes damage of the nerve cells and areas of the brain which in due course leads to severe physical, mental and emotional deterioration. Anyone whose parent has the disease is born with a fifty per cent chance of inheriting the gene. Anyone who inherits the gene will, at some stage, develop the disease. Continue reading
Patel, R(on the application of) v The General Medical Council  EWCA Civ 327 – read judgment
Kate Beattie of 1 Crown Office Row was led by Richard Drabble QC for the appellant in this case. She has nothing to do with the writing of this post.
The registration criteria for doctors trained abroad have been changed to respond to abuse by medical schools claiming false affiliations with the institutions listed in the WHO Directory. Although the 2006 rules effecting this change were lawful, the appellant had a legitimate expectation that he could rely on individual and specific assurances that he would be allowed to register on completion of his training.
The appellant, a qualified pharmacist, wished to qualify as a doctor. He sought assurances from the GMC that his part time course with a medical school in St Kitts. affiliated with the London College of Medicine, would lead to an acceptable qualification. The GMC’s replies indicated that it would be. He performed his pre-clinical studies by distance learning at IUHS in St. Kitts and then completed his supervised clinical rotations at United Kingdom hospitals. This course clearly represented a huge investment of time and money by the appellant. However, registration of his Primary Medical Qualification (PMQ) was subsequently refused because the registration criteria had been changed. Continue reading
Cancer Voices Australia v Myriad Inc 13 February 2013 – read judgment
Another battle in the war against gene patenting has been lost, this time in Australia.
The US litigation is still ongoing, with the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upholding Myriad’s patents on DNA sequenced in the laboratory: see my post on that judgment. On 30 November 2012, the US Supreme Court announced that it would hear an appeal in the Myriad case. The US law in relation to the patentability is therefore not likely to be settled until the Supreme Court reaches it own decision on the issue.
This Federal Court ruling in Australia has now endorsed the government’s rejection of calls for an outright ban on the patenting of genes by ruling that isolated nucleic acid (including isolated DNA and RNA) is patentable. Continue reading
Meiklejohn v St George’s Healthcare Trust  EWHC 469 (QB) – read judgment
Richard Booth of 1 Crown Office Row acted for the claimant in this case. He is not the author of this post.
There is no doubt that medical diagnosis and therapy are struggling to keep pace with the genetic information pouring out of the laboratories and sequencing centres. And the issue of medical liability is being stretched on the rack between conventional treatment and the potential for personalised therapy. Treatment of disease often turns out to be different, depending on which gene mutation has triggered the disorder. However fine tuned the diagnosis, it may turn out to be profoundly wrong in the light of subsequent discoveries.
This is perhaps an oversimplified characterisation of what happened in this case, but it exemplifies the difficulties facing clinicians and the courts where things go wrong, against the backdrop of this fast-moving field of scientific endeavour. Continue reading
This guest post is by Sanchita Hosali, Deputy Director at the British Institute of Human Rights. A number of 1 Crown Office Row barristers represented parties to the Inquiry, none of whom has contributed to this post.
Hundreds of people have died; others have been starved, dehydrated and left in appalling conditions of indignity, witnessed by their loved ones. Surely this is what Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary, had in mind when he recently cautioned to need to “concentrate on real human rights”?
Yet the rights, legal accountability, and practical benefits of the Human Rights Act are rarely mentioned in discussions about the shocking failures of care such as those featured in today’s Public Inquiry Report in events at Staffordshire Hospital between 2005-2008.
As Mr Francis makes clear, what happened at Staffordshire Hospital was a breach of basic rights to dignity and respect, and what is needed now are stronger lines of accountability and culture change which places patients at the heart of healthcare. Human rights speak to the fundamental standards that the Report says are needed to achieve this transformation in care.
The Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry report has been published. Robert Francis QC was tasked to investigate the role of the commissioning, supervisory and regulatory bodies in the monitoring of Mid Staffordshire Foundation NHS Trust.
Read the report:
The report built on the work of Francis’s earlier independent inquiry into the care provided the hospital between January 2005 and March 2009. A number of 1 Crown Office Row barristers, including me, represented various participants at the Inquiry. They were:
- Sally Smith QC and Christopher Mellor for the Strategic Health Authority;
- David Hart QC for the CQC
- Owain Thomas for the NHSLA;
- Jeremy Hyam and Kate Beattie for a number of the families;
- Shaheen Rahman and Peter Skelton for AVMA and the Patients Association;
- Adam Wagner for the Department of Health.
An NHS Trust v SR  EWHC 3842 (Fam) – read judgment
The highly publicised case about a seven year old boy whose estranged parents could not agree about the necessary treatment following surgery for his brain tumour was resolved by a firm ruling in favour of orthodox medicine by Bodey J, four days before Christmas.
The facts of the case are well known, but it may be instructive to lay out some of the details of the procedure that follows in a situation like this, and to point up the approach of the courts to a matter where orthodox science lies flat against the claims of complementary medicine. Where the life of a child is at stake, there is no polite equivocation between the two.
Briefly, the mother would not agree to the recommended post-operative course of chemo- and radiotherapy (carrying an 80% chance of success), believing instead that her son would fare better with alternative forms of treatment and would avoid or reduce the undoubtedly detrimental long-term side effects of the treatment package being proposed. In a serious matter such as this, where the parents cannot agree, an application has to be made to the court for a declaration that the procedure in question is lawful. That involves a decision as to the child’s best interests, being the court’s paramount consideration. Hence it was incumbent on the NHS Trust concerned to apply to the High Court to determine the issue of N’s treatment following on from his brain surgery two months previously. Continue reading
This week David Cameron announced plans to introduce whole genome mapping for cancer patients and those with rare diseases within the NHS.
Single gene testing is already available across the NHS ranging from diagnosing cancers to assessing patients’ risk of suffering side effects from treatment, but this initiative will mean that the UK will be the first country in the world to introduce the technology within a mainstream health system, with up to 100,000 patients over three to five years having their whole genome – their personal DNA code –sequenced. According to Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies
The genome profile will give doctors a new, advanced understanding of a patient’s genetic make-up, condition and treatment needs, ensuring they have access to the right drugs and personalised care far quicker than ever before.
What will this mean for medical confidentiality? The official announcement ends with the following declaration:
1. Genome sequencing is entirely voluntary. Patients will be able to opt out of having their genome sequenced without affecting their NHS care.
2. Whole genome sequence data will be completely anonymised apart from when it is used for an individuals own care.
3. A number of ways to store this data will be investigated. The privacy and confidentiality of NHS patients will be paramount in this decision. Continue reading
I posted previously on the decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to uphold the patents on the genetics company Myriad’s gene sequences for breast cancer research and therapy. In September 2012 the American Civil Liberties Union once again petitioned for Supreme Court review. The Court should decide today whether to review the case.
The whole question of proprietary claims over genetic information is not limited to patents and is very much open to debate. In my piece on the US Bioethics Commission’s report to the Obama administration I discussed the challenge faced by lawmakers in regulating the increasing flow of genomic information so as to protect people’s privacy without shutting down the flow of data vital to biomedical research. Whilst it is true that the availability of patent protection creates vital incentives for such research, genetic testing companies like Myriad can extend their exclusivity beyond their patented products by creating limiting access to private databases containing information vital to interpreting the clinical significance of human genetic variations. There is concern that this threatens to impede the clinical interpretation of genomic medicine. The Genomics Law Report Journal reports that
National health systems and insurers, regulators, researchers, providers and patients all have a strong interest in ensuring broad access to information about the clinical significance of variants discovered through genetic testing. Continue reading
Debate about whether the Human Rights Act (HRA) might be replaced by a new UK Bill of Rights often dwells on the potential loss, or at least weakening, of the legal route to accountability and redress for victims of human rights violations. An event next month in Liverpool reminds us how much more might be lost if the HRA were to be scrapped or watered down. In particular, it highlights the significance of section 6 of the Act, which requires all public authorities to act in a way which is compatible with European Convention rights unless primary legislation requires them to act otherwise.
The event in question is the launch of the latest results of the Human Rights in Healthcare programme. The programme was set up in 2006 by the Department of Health and the British Institute of Human Rights; in 2011-12, it was led by Lindsey Dyer of Mersey Care NHS Trust. Under its leadership, pilot NHS Trusts have used human rights to design and run services in areas as diverse as dementia care, acute hospital settings, district nursing and care homes.
I have posted previously on the logistical difficulties in legislating against genetic discrimination.
The prospect that genetic information not only affects insurance and employment opportunities is alarming enough. But it has many other implications: it could be used to deny financial backing or loan approval, educational opportunities, sports eligibility, military accession, or adoption eligibility. At the moment, the number of documented cases of discrimination on the basis of genetic test results is small. This is probably due to the relatively few conditions for which there are currently definitive genetic tests, coupled with the expense and difficulty of conducting these tests. But genetic discrimination is a time bomb waiting to be triggered and the implications of whole genome sequencing (WGS) are considered in a very interesting and readable report by the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues Privacy and Progress in Whole Genome Sequencing.
Yes, says the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, upholding the validity of human gene patents related to breast and ovarian cancer (Association for Molecular Pathology and others v the Patent Office and Myriad Genetics – read judgment) UPDATED
The three judge panel ruled in a 2-1 decision that the biotechnology company Myriad was entitled to its patents on the molecules because each of them represented “a non-naturally occurring composition of matter”. The court also upheld Myriad’s patent on a technique for identifying potential cancer therapies by monitoring effects on cell growth, but denied their claim on assessing cancer risk by comparing DNA sequences because the method is based on “abstract, mental steps” of logic that are not “transformative”.
This fascinating judgment is a model of clarity and fluency in this difficult area. But what does this intellectual property tussle have to do with human rights? Well, there is nothing unfamiliar to human rights lawyers in litigation over the availability of life-saving treatment (patient B, the Herceptin case and the antiretroviral litigation in South Africa are three examples that spring to mind). And much of it begins in the laboratory, with the critical allocation of exclusivity rights. Continue reading
The Queen(on the application of Tony Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice  EWHC 2381 (Admin) – read judgment
Lord Justice Toulson, sitting with Mrs Justice Royce and Mrs Justice Macur, has handed down judgment in the case of Tony Nicklinson and that of another “locked-in” syndrome sufferer, “Martin”. On all the issues, they have deferred to parliament to take the necessary steps to address the problems created by the current law of murder and assisted suicide.
Philip Havers QC of 1 Crown Office represented Martin in this case.
Tony Nicklinson sought a declaration of immunity from prosecution for a doctor who would give him a fatal dose of painkillers to end his life in Britain. He also sought a declaration that the current law is incompatible with his right to respect for private life under article 8, contrary to s1 and 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, in so far as it criminalises voluntary active euthanasia and/or assisted suicide.
Martin’s claim was slightly different as his wife does not want to do anything which will hasten his death. He therefore asked for permission for volunteers to be able to help him get to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland (under recent guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions only family members or close friends who are motivated by compassion are unlikely to be prosecuted for assisting a suicide). In the alternative he sought a declaration that section 2 of the Suicide Act is incompatible with the right to autonomy and private life under Article 8 of the European Convention. Continue reading