In a dramatic case that touched on the burning issue of whether individuals have the right to choose death over life, a family judge was called into action in the middle of the night to save the life of a teenage girl after she overdosed on paracetamol.
The on-call judge had received an anguished call close to midnight from a solicitor representing an NHS Trust. The 17-year-old’s life was hanging by a thread as she ‘firmly resisted’ emergency treatment, saying that she was determined to die.
Although she had a history of self-harm and mental illness, the judge was ‘not satisfied’ that she did not have capacity to choose for herself. However, he ruled that her right to life – enshrined in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights – was paramount and opened the way for medics to treat her.
The girl, referred to as ‘P’, had been admitted to hospital shortly after taking the pills. However, she refused to accept treatment, saying that ‘her life was s*** and that she would not have taken the overdose if she was going to agree to take the antidote’.
The girl’s mother gave consent for the treatment but doctors were reluctant to give it without a court order after a consultant psychologist said that the girl was ‘able to understand information and retain it and also to weigh up and use it’.
A crisis was swiftly reached and the judge observed, “Unless a paracetamol overdose is treated within approximately eight hours, serious damage to the liver may be sustained and in due course the patient may die.”
Explaining his decision in a public judgment handed down after the event, the judge said, “Balancing the competing factors, I had no hesitation in concluding that the balance came down firmly in the favour of overriding P’s wishes. I recognise that this is not to be taken lightly. The wishes of a young person aged seventeen-and-a-half are important.” He concluded, however, “The court was under a heavy duty to take what steps it could to protect P’s life, which was manifestly in danger.”