Archie Battersbee: how third parties can further complicate tragic life support cases

Archie Battersbee joins a list of tragic cases of children in which the courts have been called to take the grave decision on whether life support treatment should be withdrawn.

Having a child suffer an injury that leaves them attached to a machine and a shadow of the lively child they were previously is every parent’s worst nightmare. As a result, cases such as Charlie Gard, Alfie Evans, Isaiah Haastrup, Tafida Raqeeb and Alta Fixler have struck a chord with the public.

Tafida’s was the only one with a seemingly happy ending. A judge disagreed with doctors at the Royal London hospital and allowed the brain-damaged girl – unlike Archie she was not deemed to be brain-stem dead – to travel to Italy for treatment, where she recovered sufficiently to be removed from intensive care.

Hers and other cases, which remain rare, end up in court because there has been a disagreement between doctors and parents about whether to continue treatment. In those circumstances either party – in the Gard case, it was Barts NHS trust – can apply for the court to adjudicate.

The emotions generated by such cases have often led to legal proceedings happening in a highly charged atmosphere. Upsetting allegations and even threats have been levelled at doctors and nurses by parties not involved in proceedings.

It is therefore no surprise that according to Lady Finlay, a crossbench peer and professor of palliative medicine, the government is said to be considering an inquiry into different ways of handling such cases, for example independent mediation.

She told Times Radio on Monday: “I’m hoping that by the end of the summer we’ll have an inquiry into different ways of handling these very, very difficult cases so that there is independent mediation.

“And I say independent because, if it’s supplied by the hospital, or it’s supplied by the parents, one side may feel mistrustful of the other. But to be in the situation of adversarial conflict doesn’t help anybody.”

She added that “where lawyers get involved, things escalate, and it gets harder and harder to communicate between the doctor and the parents as to what’s happening”.

Mediation sounds sensible but it requires sign-on from all involved and that may be easier said than done. For parents it can seem like a simple but horrific binary choice: their child either lives or dies. Additionally, recent years have brought increasing intervention by religious groups purporting to support parents but who have also been accused of inflaming tensions.

In Charlie’s case, the US pastor Rev Patrick Mahoney, a fervent anti-abortion campaigner and former national spokesperson for Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group with links to violence at clinics and against abortion providers, flew to London to act as self-appointed spokesperson for the parents.

Archie’s parents have been supported by the Christian Legal Centre, who were also involved in Alfie’s case, in which Mr Justice Hayden described Pavel Stroilov, the centre law student representing Alfie’s parents, as a “fanatical and deluded young man” whose submissions to the court were “littered with vituperation and bile” that was “inconsistent with the real interests of the parents’ case”.

Stroilov was behind the attempt by Alfie’s parents to pursue a private prosecution for murder against three Alder Hey doctors. Archie’s mother has referred to the withdrawal of life support as a “choreographed execution”. Bruno Quintavalle, a barrister who has been involved in Alfie’s and Archie’s cases, was a leader of anti-abortion group ProLife Alliance and previously brought a case in his own name challenging cell cloning.

The involvement of such third-party ideologues presents a significant obstacle to the laudable aim of resolving such sensitive cases in a less adversarial manner.


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