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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 August 2006, 19:31 GMT 20:31 UK
Patient loses right-to-food fight
Leslie Burke
Leslie Burke won his original case
A man with an incurable brain condition has lost his final legal appeal to insist that doctors give him food and drink in the final stages of his life.

Leslie Burke, from Lancaster, feels he will be denied sustenance when his illness makes him unable to speak.

The European Court of Human Rights said it did not believe there was a real threat that his food would be stopped.

The European judges refused to reverse a UK ruling that allows doctors to decide a patient's treatment.

Mr Burke, 46, has Friedreich's ataxia. It causes a lack of co-ordination, but does not affect mental faculties.

'Extremely disappointed'

In a written judgement released last week the European judges said they were satisfied UK law favoured prolonging life wherever possible.

The European court said it did not accept there was a "real and imminent" threat that artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH) would be withdrawn in the final stages of his illness.

A decision about when to curtail active interventions for people who are dying or seriously ill is one of the hardest choices that patients, families and doctors make
British Medical Association

Former postman Mr Burke said he was "extremely disappointed" at the ruling.

"I only hope that if I am lucky enough to be in hospital, that the doctors treating me will not believe at some stage that it will be in my best interests for ANH to be withdrawn."

He said that "even when death is imminent" the withdrawal of sustenance would be "effectively letting me die of starvation and thirst when I am no longer able to communicate my wishes".

Mr Burke was at the funeral of his brother, who had the same genetic condition, when he learnt that his legal bid had failed.

He says he will make a living will to set out his wishes.

Legal clarity

Mr Burke had argued in the UK courts that General Medical Council guidelines giving doctors ultimate say over a patient's life were an infringement of his human rights.

Although he won his first case, the GMC appealed successfully and had the initial ruling overturned - prompting his appeal to the European courts.

The court has effectively determined his application is premature
Muiris Lyons
Mr Burke's solicitor

The GMC said at the time that Mr Burke would receive the treatment he needed, including artificial nutrition and hydration, and that nothing in its guidance prevented this.

The British Medical Association, which supported the GMC's case, responded to the European ruling by saying it was "absolutely essential" that the law and professional guidelines were clear.

"A decision about when to curtail active interventions for people who are dying or seriously ill is one of the hardest choices that patients, families and doctors make," said a BMA spokeswoman.

"Decisions must be made on an individual basis taking account of all relevant factors including the known wishes of the patient."

Catch-22 situation

According to the European judges, when a patient can no longer communicate their wishes, artificial nutrition should continue as long as it prolongs life.

But there were circumstances where it could hasten death, they said, so it would be impossible to set rules as to what was in a patient's best interests.

Mr Burke's solicitor, Muiris Lyons, said: "Leslie wanted to have his position clarified now, before he loses his competency to determine his own best interests.

"The court has effectively determined his application is premature.

"However once he loses the capacity to make his own decisions he will also lose the ability to make such an application in his own right. It is a Catch-22 situation."

'Why I fear for my future'
23 Feb 04 |  Lancashire

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