I know that these Court of Protection decisions, authorising a hospital to undertake interventions / treatment without a patient’s consent are of interest to my readers, following on from the case with the Italian mother that attracted considerable notoriety in December 2013.
This one, Re P 2013
once again involved a mother said to have mental health problems (rather than say a learning difficulty) . The media were present, and save for being able to identify the mother or the Trust, the Judge was amenable to the details of the case being made public.
If you aren’t aware, there is broadly a two stage test – firstly does the patient have capacity to take the decision for themselves (and if they do, they are entitled to make a decision which flies in the face of medical advice or even common sense) – and secondly, if not, the Judge has to apply a best interests decision – taking into account all of the circumstances and what is known about their wishes, what is in the patient’s best interests.
As a matter of particular interest in this case, the Judge raised an issue which I have debated with people before. As you may be aware, the ‘best interests’ decision relates to the patient themselves, not in the health of the child. Unlike Children Act cases where the child’s welfare is paramount, the unborn child has no legal rights to take into account. The decided C-section cases have always been that the operation avoids a risk to the mother’s health as a result of her medical situation, and the fact that a C-section might be the safest way for the child to be born has not, thus far come into the decision-making process.
The debate therefore is whether, when taking into account the mother’s best interests, one can take into account that it would be in her best interests and in accordance with her wishes if the baby were to be delivered safely and well – this being something that any mother would want for her baby.
The Judge decided that it absolutely could be taken into account.
Next, there is no doubt at all that it would be in the best interests of Mrs. P for her baby to be safely delivered. The court cannot be concerned with the interests of the unborn child, but can, and does, have regard to the extremely adverse effect on Mrs. P if unnecessarily her child was not born safely or was born with some avoidable disability as a result of a lack of obstetric care which might have been given. Furthermore, the proposal that the Trust makes offers the best chance of a secure labour and delivery for Mrs. P if it is approached in a planned way rather than awaiting the chance moment.
Therefore, although this decision was taken primarily on health grounds for the mother, the door is possibly opened in another case for the decision to be primarily about safely delivering the child.
The other aspects of this case were 1) that the mother was not merely not consenting to the operation (although she did not have capacity to consent), but actively hostile to it. And that was a factor that had to be taken into account when deciding the best interests element and 2) that at the time of the application the mother was described as being calm and lucid, so the declaration sought was to ensure that if things deteriorated during labour, the hospital could take action.
The current situation is that Mrs. P is in hospital awaiting the arrival of her baby. She is relatively calm and accepting of the idea of being induced as described. However, that may change if she was to become agitated during her labour, as she has been in the recent past. There is a good chance that she will be able to give birth by normal means. That is the outcome which everybody hopes for. However, if that does not happen it is said, and I so find, to be in her interests for emergency measures to be taken for the benefit of her physical and mental health by means, as a last resort, of a Caesarean section.
It might be helpful, given that the reported cases on C-section are somewhat slight on guidance over and above the standard Mental Capacity Act tests, and the St Georges case (suggesting that the patient also ought to be helped by the Hospital to develop understanding to make an informed decision) predates the Mental Capacity Act for one of these cases to be appealed in the future. There’s perhaps not enough weight at present in these judgments as to the nature of the act being authorised and its invasiveness and any sort of guidance as to how serious the health risks ought to be before one performs the operation on a person who is not in a position to agree to it as a result of mental illness.
(Of course, the reality of these applications are that they are done swiftly, often as an emergency, and that after the C-section is performed, it can’t exactly be undone, so a later appeal is more academic than practical)