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News of the Day ... In Perspective

08/19/2006

Courts with life-and-death powers to sit in secret in UK

When the controversial Mental Capacity Act goes into force in the UK next April, rules for the Court of Protection, which can be put into effect on the authority of Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips, say that proceedings may be held in secret at the discretion of the judge.

This ministerial decision means that “the first British courts in 40 years to have the right to take life can sit behind closed doors if a judge thinks the proceedings should not be made public,” explains Steven Doughty. The death penalty was abolished in Britain in 1965.

Issues that may be decided in secret include child custody, adoption, powers of attorney, and the interpretation of living wills.

Living wills allow a patient to order in advance that “doctors should allow them to die if they become too ill to speak for or to feed themselves,” writes Doughty. This includes the removal of feeding tubes. However, a living will may not insist that an incapacitated person be kept alive. This view, held by the British government, was confirmed by the European Court of Appeals last week.

Critics say that the Mental Capacity Act amounts to “back door euthanasia” and places desperately ill and incapacitated patients at terrible risk from unscrupulous families or advisors.

The secrecy rule “will allow the courts to do anything and everything and nobody will ever find out,” stated Robert Whelan of the Civitas think tank.

Another disturbing feature of the Mental Capacity Act is that “doctors who refuse to kill their patients in accordance with the terms of a living will are open to criminal prosecution” (Steve Doughty, The Daily Mail 8/13/06).

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