The Times
April 22 2000

Relatives try to halt 'mercy killings'


A GROUP of bereaved relatives fighting to halt unofficial euthanasia in Britain's hospitals is to take the Government to court under new human rights legislation.

SOS-NHS Patients in Danger claims that the Government has failed to uphold its statutory duty to protect vulnerable elderly patients from doctors who deliberately withhold intravenous fluids to hasten death. The practice, admitted by doctors and nurses to be widespread, is said to have received tacit approval in many hospitals in order to relieve pressure on NHS beds.

The group's legal action will challenge the legality of guidelines to doctors, introduced last year by the British Medical Association after consultation with the Department of Health. The guidelines allow doctors to deny hydration and nutrition by tube for stroke victims and those suffering from dementia, even when the patients are not terminally ill, if it is thought to be "in their best interests".

After discussions with Helena Kennedy, QC, SOS-NHS Patients in Danger plans to take High Court action under the 1998 Human Rights Act, which comes into force in October. The legislation incorporates the articles of the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights and will make it unlawful for doctors, hospital trusts and health authorities to "act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right". Claimants have hitherto been obliged to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Amid mounting concern about a "creeping tide" of unofficial euthanasia, first disclosed by The Times in January 1999, police and health chiefs have been investigating more than 60 cases. In the biggest case, detectives in Derby have examined 40 deaths at the Kingsway Hospital, in which nurses claimed that dementia sufferers on a geriatric ward were starved and dehydrated. A file on six of the deaths has been sent by police to the Crown Prosecution Service. A decision on possible criminal charges is not expected for several months.