End of Life Decisions

Can you decide how you want your life to end?

There are frequently articles in the press about ‘assisted suicide’ and ‘the right to die’. Many of these are sensational and not always based on fact. So what is the position in law?

The law in England does not permit assisted suicide but there are documents you can sign to make your wishes clear to doctors and family. There are two different types.

The first is a lasting power of attorney for Health and Welfare matters. This enables a person to appoint one or more other people to speak on their behalf with regard to health and welfare issues when they can no longer make their wishes known. The document covers not just end of life decisions but how they would wish to be treated if they could not communicate their views to others. For example, the attorney may decide which care home a person should move to. The attorney makes the decisions when the donor of the power has lost mental capacity to do so. All decisions must be taken in the donor’s best interests. The power of attorney must be registered with the Office of the Public Guardian before it can be used.  Due to the length of time it takes to register the document we recommend it be registered as soon as you sign it.

The other document is called an ‘Advanced Medical Decision’  or ‘Advanced Directive’ but is frequently referred to in common parlance as ‘ A living will.’ This is a document where you set out what you would wish to happen in certain circumstances. It has to be written very clearly and be appropriate to the particular circumstances applying at any one time. For example, if you are diagnosed with cancer or dementia you could set out how you wish to be treated when you are no longer capable of giving instructions to medical professionals.  The document needs to be signed, dated and witnessed. Professional guidance is essential because of the need for clarity. There are some things you cannot do in such a document. You cannot, for instance,  request  that your life be deliberately ended nor can you request to be kept artificially alive.  On the other hand, you may request the withdrawal of treatment even if the effect will be to hasten your death.

We would recommend that you notify the consultant treating you of the Advanced Directive and it is noted on your records. This is important because if the doctors treating you are unaware of the document’s existence they may carry on with treatment, especially in an emergency situation.

Please contact us for further advice and a discussion about your particular circumstances.