First, protect the child, then worry about the penitent sinner: South Australia’s new mandatory reporting legislation

South Australia is on a collision course with the Catholic Church hierarchy following passage of the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017.

Chapter 5, Part 1 (ss 30-31), deals with reporting of suspicion that a child or young person may be at risk.  These sections come into effect on 22 October 2018, and impose a duty on ministers of religion, including priests, to report suspicions of child abuse, irrespective of whether that information was obtained during a confession.

Under the Children’s Protection Act 1993 (SA), which currently applies, ministers of religion and employees and volunteers in religious organisations owe a duty to notify suspicions of abuse or neglect: s 11(2).

However, a priest or minister of religion is given a specific exemption from divulging “information communicated in the course of a confession made in accordance with the rules and usages of the relevant religion”: s 11(4).

That changes in October.

Section 31 of the new Act requires health and welfare professionals and ministers of religion to report the suspicion that a child or young person is “at risk”.  There are no exemptions for information disclosed during a confession.

Priests are not singled out in the new legislation.  Section 30 applies to ministers of religion and employees or volunteers of organisations formed for religious or spiritual purposes.  The obligation also applies to medical practitioners, dentists, nurses, psychologists, pharmacists, police officers, community correction officers, social workers, teachers, and employees or volunteers for organisations that provide health, welfare, education, sporting, recreational child care or residential services for children.

Concept of “at risk”

Section 31 requires health and welfare professionals and ministers of religion to report the suspicion that a child or young person is “at risk”.

The concept “of risk” is defined in section 18: it includes circumstances where a child has suffered harm or is likely to suffer harm of a kind from which a child or young person is ordinarily protected.  This includes sexual assaults and related criminal offences.

The concept of “at risk” also includes a suspicion that a child is to be removed from the state for the purposes of undergoing female genital mutilation.

Section 31(3) states that a health or welfare professional may – but is not required – to report when they suspect on reasonable grounds the physical or psychological development of an unborn child is at risk, whether because of the pregnant woman’s behaviour or otherwise.

“Course of employment”

The obligation to report under s 31 arises when a health or welfare professional has a suspicion on reasonable grounds that arises in the course of their employment.

The concept of “employment” is defined broadly to include an employee, independent contractor, volunteer, as well as someone who “carries out work as a minister of religion or as part of the duties of a religious or spiritual vocation”.

Priests to defy new law

Debate about South Australia’s new mandatory reporting requirements takes place against the background of the conviction of Adelaide’s Archbishop Philip Wilson for concealing a serious indictable offence by failing to report credible allegations of sexual abuse of two altar boys by a paedophile priest.

This information did not come to Archbishop Wilson in the confessional and Catholic doctrine did not preclude him acting on it.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended that any minister of religion convicted of a crime relating to child sexual abuse should “in the case of Catholic priests and religious [orders], be dismissed from the priesthood and/or dispensed from his or her vows” (16.56.a).

Archbishop Wilson was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, but has said he will appeal the conviction.  In the meantime, he has refused to resign, indicating, however, that he would resign if the conviction was upheld.

Meanwhile, Acting Archbishop Greg O’Kelly has confirmed that priests are bound by church doctrines and that the new law “doesn’t affect us”.

Appraisal

The fact that a minority of priests have committed sexual offences against children, and that other senior Catholic clergy have failed to act on knowledge of such offences does not mean that sexual predators regularly or even occasionally confess to sexual offences during confession.  The two issues are distinct.

However, even if information about the abuse of a child reaches a priest during a confession only rarely, what does the Catholic church’s rule about absolute secrecy say about its sense of right and wrong?

The very position that such information should remain absolutely confidential if conveyed during the Sacrament of Reconciliation suggests that it is more important to encourage the penitent sinner to seek absolution than to protect the child.

You’d have to be a priest, as distinct from a parent, to follow the logic or the morality of that.

I’m a parent, and I’ll tell you what every other parent will tell you: the over-riding moral priority is to protect your child.

Protect the child.  That’s more important than swearing secrecy to someone who reveals that they are a sexual predator.  What’s not to understand?

In fact, how does someone – acutely sensitised to the rightness and wrongness of things – get to a place where they don’t understand this?

Do penitent sexual offenders never re-offend?

If the person who confesses is truly penitent, surely they would not want the child they harmed to be isolated from services to help them recover from their trauma?

The confessional should not enable further wrong-doing.

It this case it’s secular morality, and the South Australian Parliament, that is leading the way.

Public health law in the USA: What can Australia learn?

SEMINAR ANNOUNCEMENT: 

Public Health Law and Health Leadership in the United States: What can Australia learn?

Thursday 19 July, 6.00-7.30pm, Sydney Law School

In 2016, life expectancy at birth in the United States fell for the second year in a row.  Since his inauguration in 2017, President Trump and his administration have taken a number of actions that arguably weaken America’s public health infrastructure.

At the same time, the Unites States remains one of the world’s great innovators. With 52 States and more than 89,000 local and city governments, the United States frequently functions as a social laboratory for social policies, and public health laws and practices. While constrained in some areas by its constitutional design, the United States remains a leader: its influence and innovations in public health law cannot be ignored.

What can Australia learn from recent American experience with public health law and regulation?  What are the good ideas?  What should be avoided?  How can Australian jurisdictions adapt the best American innovations and create an enabling legal and political environment for public health and wellbeing?

This seminar features presentations reviewing public health law and leadership in the United States, with particular reference to: communicable diseases and pandemic preparedness, non-communicable diseases, health care, injuries and global health leadership.

This seminar is co-hosted by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and Sydney Law School.

This event features a keynote presentation by Professor Lawrence Gostin, who is the Linda and Timothy O’Neill Professor of Global Health Law, Georgetown University Law School, Washington DC, and Faculty Director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. Prof. Gostin is also the Director of the WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law.

For further information on this event, further speaker details, and to register for this event, click here.

Trump: the war on breastfeeding

The New York Times reports that US officials threatened to unleash trade sanctions and withdraw military aid from Ecuador unless it withdraw a resolution at May’s World Health Assembly calling on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding”.

The article is worth reading in its entirety.

As the father of a currently breastfeeding infant, I find this kind of behaviour utterly repellent.

There are echoes of Right to Health language (respect, protect, fulfil) in the resolution which might have displeased the Americans, but the real motivator was American support for large corporate manufacturers of breast-milk substitutes.

(Like Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories.)

Ecuador backed off from the offending resolution, as did “at least a dozen other countries, most of them poor nations in Africa and Latin America”.

Then Russia stepped in, and the intimidation apparently stopped.

“We’re not trying to be a hero here”, said a Russian delegate to the World Health Assembly, “but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world.”

Plenty of ironies here.  But they have a point.

According to the New York Times report, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said: “The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children.  We recognize not all women are able to breast-feed for a variety of reasons. These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so.”

Well gosh, that ought to sort out the doubters.

The Lancet reports that scaling up breast-feeding to near universal levels could avoid 823,000 deaths of children under 5 each year, and 20,000 maternal deaths from breast cancer.

Breastfeeding protects both mother and child, and it’s free, which is important if you’re poor.

Yet for billion dollar formula companies, the temptation to monetise the act of feeding by targeting young mothers, is just irresistible.

Read the Guardian’s investigation into Nestle’s marketing practices flogging formula to poor women in central Manila here.  Then weep.

Here is the resolution that eventually passed in the World Health Assembly, with American support.

Amongst other things, it requests the WHO Director-General to provide, upon request, “technical support to Member States to establish, review and implement national laws, policies and programmes to support infant and young child feeding”.

However, US hostility scuttled language that would have called on WHO to provide “technical support to member states seeking to halt “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.”

“Inappropriate” in this context would refer to the promotion of foods in contravention of the International Code of Conduct of Breast-milk Substitutes.

The Code prohibits the advertising of infant formula and other breast-milk substitutes to the general public, to pregnant women and mothers, and to health workers who are concerned with infant and maternal nutrition.  It also prohibits the giving of samples and other incentives for purchase. Governments are urged to implement the Code through national legislation, regulations or other suitable measures.

In addition, the Code states that infant formula should contain a clear statement of the superiority of breastfeeding, and a statement that the product should only be used following advice from a health worker. The container and labels should not contain pictures of infants, or include pictures or text that “may idealize the use of infant formula”.

Appropriately, the resolution does urge Member States (of the World Health Organisation) to strengthen national initiatives to implement the Code.

However, when you put it all together, it appears the Trump administration does not want sovereign countries receiving technical support from WHO about how best to frame their laws and policies to prevent predatory marketing practices that breach the Code.

It’s the Trump administration’s war on breastfeeding women.

Click here for information about the Australian Breastfeeding Association.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Sydney Law School and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney are co-hosting an evening seminar entitled “Public health law and health leadership in the United States: What can Australia learn?” on 19 July 2018, 6.00-7.30pmClick here for the brochure and further details.  A separate post will follow about this event.

If you’re interested to learn more about law and non-communicable diseases, Sydney Law School is offering a Masters unit, “Law, Business & Healthy Lifestyles” in the coming semester.  Click here for more information.

Sparks v Hobson must go to the High Court: here’s why

In NSW, Section 5O of the Civil Liability Act provides a defence to a doctor or health professional who is defending a negligence claim.

Under s 5O, a person will not be liable “if it is established that the professional acted in a manner that (at the time the service was provided) was widely accepted in Australia by peer professional opinion as competent professional practice”.

S 5O is often regarded as re-introducing a version of the Bolam test, since the standard of care required of a professional person is ultimately determined by the practices of his or her peers.

In Dobler v Halverson, the NSW Court of appeal clarified how s 5O operates.  It pointed out that in a medical negligence case, both parties will call expert evidence to attempt to demonstrate that what the defendant did fell short of – or did not fall short of – acceptable professional practice [59].

According to the Court, the effect of s 5O is that if the court finds the doctor’s conduct was in accordance with “professional practice regarded as acceptable by some” in the profession, then (subject to the court considering professional opinion to be irrational), that professional practice will set the standard of care and the plaintiff patient will therefore fail: [59].

 

Sparks v Hobson; Gray v Hobson

Understanding about the scope of s 5O has been thrown into disarray by the NSW Court of Appeal in Sparks v Hobson; Gray v Hobson [2018] NSWCA 29 (1 March 2018).

The facts are complex.  Mr Hobson suffered from Noonan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that resulted in serious curvature of his spine and a reduced chest cavity that prevented his left lung from filling with air.  This caused breathlessness and restrictive airways disease.  He underwent surgery that was intended to strength his spine and relieve pressure on the chest cavity.

The first stage of the operation was uneventful; however, the second stage was brought forward because Mr Hobson was in intensive care due to pneumonia in his left lung and the obstruction of his left airway.  The second stage of the operation required Mr Hobson to lie face down on the operating table, while screws were placed in his spine.

The position of Mr Hobson during the operation, and the placing of the screws, created further pressure on the chest wall, further restricting his breathing.

Mr Hobson was regarded by the expert witnesses as presenting a “very unusual and difficult anaesthetic challenge due to the significant compression of his left main bronchus by his spine and due to the requirement for prone positioning during surgery” [296]

The operation began at 7pm on 17 November 2009.  The level of carbon dioxide in Mr Hobson’s blood rose during the surgery, and at 9.30pm, Dr Sparks administered a drug called vecuronium to try to improve ventilation.  It led to no improvement; also, vecuronium was a muscle relaxant, and it meant that spinal cord monitoring was thereafter ineffective.  From that point onwards, Dr Sparks could only be guided by the oxygen and blood pressure readings “as his criteria for stopping the operation” [177].

Dr Sparks described Mr Hobson’s high blood carbon dioxide level, at 8.30 to 8.35pm as “very serious”.  He had what the clinicians called “profound respiratory and metabolic acidosis”.  At 8.50, Dr Sparks made two telephone calls to two colleagues (Dr Barratt, an anaesthetist, and Dr Marshman, a cardiothoracic surgeon), but they were unable to make any further suggestions about how to reduce the risk of cardiovascular failure.

At around 9.25pm, Mr Hobson’s blood pressure and oxygen levels dropped dramatically, and at Dr Spark’s request, the wound was closed rapidly and the operation terminated.

One of the issues in dispute was whether Dr Sparks should have terminated the operation at a time earlier than he did.  There was evidence that due to respiratory collapse around 9.30pm, precipitated by obstruction of circulation (causing lack of oxygen), irreparable damage was done to Mr Hobson’s spinal cord, leaving him a paraplegic.

Although the surgery was later completed successfully, Mr Hobson’s paraplegia remained.

The trial judge found against both Dr Sparks, and the principal surgeon, Dr Gray.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal unanimously allowed Dr Gray’s appeal.  However, Dr Sparks’ liability was upheld by a majority of 2:1.

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Sparks v Hobson raises a number of issues relating to the interpretation of provisions in the Civil Liability Act.

These include the relationship between s 5O and s 5B, and the meaning of s5I.

This post focuses specifically on the court’s interpretation of the defence in s 5O.

The uncertainty introduced by the irreconcilable judgments of the Court of Appeal in Sparks v Hobson is so significant that it will be a great shame if leave to appeal to the High Court is not granted.

 

Irreconcilable judgments

In McKenna v Hunter & New England Local Health District [2013] NSWCA 476, Macfarlan JA pointed out that the defence in s 5O is premised on the defendant doctor demonstrating that they conformed with “a practice that was in existence at the time the medical service was provided” and secondly, that the “practice was widely although not necessarily universally accepted by peer professional opinion as competent professional practice”: [160].

This emphasis on the existence of a “practice” – in the sense of a pattern of response by medical practitioners to a clinical scenario, is in contradistinction to there simply being a widespread view among peers that what the defendant did in the circumstances of the case constituted “competent professional practice”.

The significance of the need for a “practice”, as suggested by Macfarlan JA, is that in an unusual case, there may be no relevant practice in existence that the defendant doctor can identify and appeal to for the purposes of a defence.

 

Basten JA

In Sparks v Hobson, Basten JA rejected the suggestion in McKenna that the defence in s 5O only applies where the defendant can identify “a regular course of conduct adopted in particular circumstances” [31].

McKenna was overturned by the High Court, so Basten JA thought that the reasoning of the majority of the Court of Appeal, on the interpretation of s 5O, was no longer binding: [35]

He said: “there is no grammatical or semantic difficulty in describing an argument run by counsel in a novel case as demonstrating competent or incompetent professional practice” [31].

In a novel case, Basten JA thought that a defendant may invoke the defence in s 5O “by reference to how an assessment of the circumstances (which may be unique) would be undertaken by a knowledgeable and experienced practitioner” [31].

Although Basten JA did not think a defendant needed to establish they acted in accordance with a “practice” (understood in the sense of an established course of conduct followed in the circumstances of the case), he nevertheless concluded that Dr sparks had failed to establish a standard, widely accepted in Australia, of competent professional practice, for the purposes of availing himself of the s 5O defence.

 

Macfarlan JA

In Sparks v Hobson, Macfarlan JA reiterated his approach in McKenna.  He said: “It is not enough that experts called to give evidence consider that the conduct was reasonable and that it would have been so regarded by other professionals if they had been asked about it at the time of the conduct” [211].

In this case, the surgery was highly unusual.  Although the expert witnesses all agreed Dr Sparks acted reasonably in the actions he took during the operation, and although they considered professional peers would likely have taken the same view, the experts and the defendant did not point to an established practice that was followed by Dr Sparks in the circumstances of the case [221].

In Macfarlan JA’s analysis, this was fatal to Dr Sparks’ defence: see [223].

 

Simpson JA

The third justice in the NSW Court of Appeal was Simpson JA, who considered that she was bound to accept the construction of s 5O adopted in the McKenna case.

But for the constraint of precedent, Simpson JA would not have adopted the approach of Macfarlan JA.

She said: “As construed in McKenna, s 5O can apply only in limited circumstances, where the defendant can, or seeks to, identify a discrete practice to which he or she conformed.  It necessarily excludes unusual factual circumstances, such as occurred in McKenna, and such as occurred in the present case.  It does not appear to me that s 5O was intended to have such limited application.  However, as I have said, I consider myself constrained to follow and apply that decision” [336].

In Justice Simpson’s view, Dr Sparks failed to establish a defence based on s 5O because he could not identify a “practice” to which he conformed in the highly challenging and unusual circumstances of the case.  This, “notwithstanding that the overwhelming medical evidence was that his conduct was in accordance with what was widely accepted in Australia as competent professional practice’” [346].

Despite this, Simpson JA found in favour of Dr Sparks because she thought that in the circumstances of the case, s 5I applied.

S 5I provides that a person is not liable for the materialisation of an inherent risk that cannot be avoided by the exercise of reasonable care and skill.

In her Honour’s view, once it was found that Mr Hobson’s deteriorating condition warranted the surgery “as emergency surgery”, and that the surgery carried the risk of paraplegia, s 5I applied to excuse Dr Hobson from liability.

In addition, Simpson JA concluded that the evidence did not establish that the failure by Dr Sparks to terminate the operation before 9.30pm amounted to a departure from the standard of reasonable care and skill required of a specialist anaesthetist [350], given that Mr Hobson “needed urgent surgery to ensure his survival”: [352].

 

The future of the s 5O defence

As things stand, the judgments of Justices Macfarlan and Simpson in Sparks v Hobson give majority support to an interpretation of s 5O that limits its scope as a defence for doctors in medical negligence proceedings.

The issue at stake goes to the heart of what the defence requires courts to do.

In the view of Justice Simpson, the task of the court when considering the defence in s 5O is not to choose between competing views but to determine whether as a factual matter, the acts and/or omissions of the defendant that give rise to allegations of breach of duty of care “had the acceptance of peer opinion, even if other peer opinion was different”: [345].

This view is consistent with the assumption that s 5O was intended to introduce a version of the Bolam principle into New South Wales law, thereby ensuring that medical practices, rather than a court, ultimately define the standard of care by which a doctor’s conduct will be judged.

If the view of Justice Macfarlan is followed, by contrast, the role of the court would focus on determining whether a relevant “practice” exists on which a defence might be founded.

In cases where no such practice exists, s 5O can have no application.

The question of standard of care and breach would then fall to be determined by the court, applying common law principles, “guided by the evidence of medical practitioners skilled in the area of medical practice in question” [321], and altered (to the extent that it is altered) by the principles set out in 5B [see [338] per Simpson JA].

 

So, on what basis did the  majority Justices consider that Dr Sparks had breached his duty of care?

Justices Basten and Macfarlan held against Dr Sparks.

According to Justice Macfarlan, Dr Sparks’ failure to terminate the operation was not limited to a short period of time, but extended for at least 20 minutes after the two telephone calls to Dr Barratt and Dr Marshmann until 9.25pm, when Mr Hobson’s blood pressure and oxygen level dropped.  By then the damage had been done.

Essentially, Justice Macfarlan thought the breach of duty was made out because Dr Sparks unreasonably ignored a “serious and imminent intra-operative danger” (the high carbon dioxide levels) when the other countervailing risk (the risk to Mr Hobson if the operation was terminated) did not have the same immediacy: [188].

Also, “Dr Sparks had to assess and respond to the immediate danger to Mr Hobson (rather than the more remote risks that could eventuate if the operation was not completed) because Dr Sparks’ duty as principal anaesthetist was to protect the patient’s well-being whilst the operation was in progress” [182].

Justice Basten agreed that the decision to allow the operation to continue for so long, after he had sought help from experienced colleagues, without success, was more than just an “erroneous clinical judgment” but was a breach of his duty of care to Mr Sparks [93].

What becomes of a country that cannot protect its young?

 

March for our lives, Washington DC, 24 March 2018

 

It’s too early to say if the grassroots social movement initiated by students who survived the gun massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida will be successful in nudging America’s gun laws in the direction of rationality and evidence.

After killing 17 people with an AR-15 style semi-automatic weapon, and injuring 17 more, 19 year-old former student Nikolas Cruz left the school premises, blending in with the crowd and remaining free for an hour before arrested.

On March 24, students and gun control advocates took to the streets of Washington DC in a “March for Our Lives”.

They’re trying to start a movement.  You can join them.

“To the leaders, skeptics and cynics who told us to sit down and stay silent, wait your turn! Welcome to the revolution!” said student Cameron Kasky.

Barack Obama tweeted: “Michelle and I are so inspired by all the young people who made today’s marches happen. Keep at it. You’re leading us forward. Nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change.”

In the thick of it, as usual, my friend Professor Lawrence Gostin from Georgetown University Law School, who leads the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.  You can read about the march on his twitter account here.

He writes: “From a long life’s experience on health and human rights I have found that no meaningful change happens without bottom up social mobilization.”

He’s right.  This is true of gun control, tobacco control, and much else in public health.

Is there constitutional space for rational, evidence-based gun control laws in the United States?

It’s sometimes assumed that the US Second Amendment, which states that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”, leaves little room for rational, evidence-based gun control policies and laws.

This is not so, argues Professor Gostin in a recent paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  For additional resources, click here, here, and here.

In fact, rational firearms laws are compatible with the Constitution and with recent caselaw, suggesting that the real problem is a political one.  Rational, evidence-based measures to reduce firearms deaths in the United States could include:

  • mandating a higher minimum purchasing age for firearms
  • prohibiting dangerous individuals from purchasing or owning firearms
  • requiring safe storage
  • banning weapons with especially hazardous properties such as military-style rapid-fire firearms and high capacity magazines, and
  • banning open carry of firearms (an emerging issue for college campuses, where academics receive advice about what to do in “active shooter” situations).

Young people exercising another of their constitutional rights, March for our lives, Washington DC, 24 March 2018.  (However, Rick Santorum suggests they would be better served taking CPR classes)

 

What makes bottom-up change happen?

This is a neglected but vitally important questions for public health lawyers.

Will the anger and conviction that fuels the “March for our lives” movement endure?  Will it prove capable of raising the resources that will be necessary to make a compelling case for change to the American people?

Public health advocates often focus on content: the technical content of the policies they advocate, the evidence, and the rational case for change.  And then nothing happens.

More than ever, advocates need to better understand the factors that catalyse change, the factors that make social movements successful, and enduring.

Jeremy Shiffman has written about why some global health issues attract attention while others languish: his scholarship is helpful in also analysing national public health issues.

For social constructionists like Shiffman, global health problems like HIV, polio, or non-communicable diseases do not have any inherent priority or significance.  The attention an issue receives, while not unrelated to epidemiological facts, is “always mediated by social interpretations”.

From a social constructionist perspective, the “core activity” of global health advocates is ideational: health advocates must advance truth claims about the problem and its solutions that resonate with the values and shared interpretations of political leaders and those who control resources.

On this view, global health (and the same could be said of national public health priorities) is a competitive – and brutal – process of portraying and communicating severity, neglect, tractability and benefit in ways that appeal to political leaders’ social values and concepts of reality”.

Yet increasingly, reality itself is no longer a shared experience.  Gun control advocates and gun enthusiasts might as well live in different universes.  Their sources of information are completely unrelated; the things they find persuasive utterly different.

Speaking in Sydney on a recent visit, Barack Obama said that “social and political structures had not yet worked out how to deal with rapidly changing communications technology, a world in which people no longer watched the same TV channels or read the same newspapers. The rapid pace of change was having a flow-on effect across the globe, and was likely to get faster still. Discourse was becoming increasingly fragmented, with people becoming hermetically sealed off from each other inside very different information universes.”

The triple cocktail of extreme individualism, neoliberalism, and populism have created a social landscape in which there is less and less shared ground when it comes to values and visions for a better life.

Speaking as a non-American, it seems to me that the scale of the challenge, for gun control advocates, is reflected in the reflexive tendency of the pro-gun lobby to castigate the very mention of rational gun laws, following [America’s latest semi-automatic gunfire massacre: insert details here] as exploitative – as politicizing a tragedy.

A couple of examples.  Jesse Hughes, whose band, Eagles of Death Metal, was performing at the Bataclan theatre in Paris on 13 November 2015 when terrorists stormed in and took hostages, eventually killing 89, went on an on-line rant, calling the Stoneman High School students “disgusting vile abusers of the dead”.

Another right-wing media type tweeted the following about David Hogg, one of the Florida students advocating for stricter gun laws: “I’ve been hanging out getting ready to ram a hot poker up David Hogg’s ass tomorrow.”

All because some students who survived a mass murder at their school dared express their opinion that government ought to introduce gun control laws to help make such rampages less frequent.

Like the tragedy of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the gun massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School reflects the failure of policy, the failure of politics and politicians, and ultimately, the potential failure of a society.

What becomes of a country that cannot – or will not – protect its young?

Authoritarian regimes, that fail the protect basic freedoms, or do so only partially, start to look a whole lot better.

That’s bad news for freedom, and bad news for America.

 

Professor Larry Gostin will be speaking at Sydney Law School on 19 July, as part of an evening event titled: ‘Public health and health leadership in the USA: what can Australia learn’.  Sydneyhealthlaw.com will advertise this event in due course.  Professor Gostin will be teaching the unit of study, Global Health Law on 17-20 July; for more information on this unit, click here.  For more information on Sydney Law School’s Master of Health Law, click here and here.

NSW Law Reform Commission recommends far-reaching reform of guardianship legislation

In 2016, the New South Wales Law Reform Commission was asked to review the Guardianship Act 1987 (NSW), having regard to UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and a variety of other matters.

With the submission date for comments on the draft proposals now closed, we look forward to the final report.

The Commission’s draft proposals, available here, are wide-ranging.

The Commission would like to see a new Act called the Assisted Decision-Making Act introduced to provide a formal framework for assisted decision-making.  This Act would replace the Guardianship Act 1987, and the enduring power of attorney provisions contained in Part 4 of the Powers of Attorney Act 2003 (NSW).

This post highlights some of the most important changes the draft proposals would introduce.

New terminology, old concepts?

The Commission’s proposed legislation would introduce new terminology.  A “guardian” would be called an “enduring representative” (when previously appointed by the “represented person” in anticipation of reduced decision-making ability in future), and a “representative” if appointed by a court or tribunal.

The term “guardian” would disappear, replaced with references to persons who do not have “decision-making ability” for the purposes of a health care decision.

The proposed legislation would introduce a new definition of “decision-making ability” and would link each person’s decision-making ability to the particular decision in question, recognizing that their ability can vary, depending on the circumstances, including the time at which the decision is made (proposal 1.14).

The Commission asserts that the Guardianship Act contains no “clear or consistent definition of decision-making ability or capacity” (p 5).

However, Part V of the current Act, which governs medical decision-making, does clarify when a person is incapable of giving consent to medical treatment: ie when a person is “incapable of understanding the general nature and effect of the proposed treatment” or is incapable of communicating their consent or lack of consent: s 33(2).

Where this test is met, the common law’s presumption in favour of consent will be displaced, and the provisions governing substituted decision-making under the Act will take effect.

In cases such as Re C (adult: refusal of medical treatment) [1994] 1 All ER 819, 824, courts have identified the ability to comprehend and retain treatment information, to believe it, and to weight it in order to arrive at a choice – as the necessary capabilities a person must have in order to have the capacity to make a medical treatment decision.

In Re C, the court ruled that a patient with schizophrenia retained capacity to refuse treatment that involved amputating his right leg, which was gangrenous and ulcerated.

The case illustrates that a person’s capacity to make decisions about their medical treatment is not an “all or nothing” question, but one that arises in relation to the specific treatment under consideration.  Courts begin from a presumption of self-determination and inquire whether it is displaced on the facts.

Rather than relying on a presumption of capacity that may be displaced for the purposes of the particular medical treatment decision under consideration, the Commission’s proposals seek to introduce a definition of “decision-making ability (or capacity)” for all purposes.

Under the proposed legislation, a person would have decision-making ability if they can:

“(a) understand the relevant information;

(b) understand the nature of the decision and the consequences of making or failing to make that decision;

(c) retain the information to the extent necessary to make the decision;

(d) use the information or weight it as part of the decision-making process;

(e) communicate the decision in some way” (Recommendation 1.12).

However, for the reasons given above, this proposed definition does not appear to involve any genuine change to the pre-existing law.

 

New concepts: supported decision-making

In other areas, the Commission’s proposals clearly do involve substantive changes.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which Australia is a party, recognizes the individual autonomy of all persons, including their right to make their own choices and their right to non-discrimination (Art. 3).

The Convention rights have contributed to a significant re-thinking of the current legislation.

The proposed legislation would introduce two new kinds of decision-making arrangements that have no counterpart in the Guardianship Act.

The first is “personal support agreements” – which formalise a situation where a supporter is appointed to assist a person to make decisions in particular areas of their life, such as health matters.

Under a personal support agreement, the supporter would be appointed by the represented person themselves, in anticipation of their future need.

The new legislation would set out the functions and responsibilities of supporters.

Those responsibilities include collecting information for the supported person, assisting them to communicate their decision, and advocating for the implementation of their decision.

The second mechanism is a “tribunal support order”.  A tribunal support order would appoint a “supporter” whose role is to assist the supported person to communicate their decisions.

It’s important to note that a supporter would not be authorised to make medical treatment decisions themselves, on behalf of the supported person, without the knowledge or consent of the supported person.

This is significant: it illustrates that a “personal support agreement” is distinct from the concept of enduring guardianship under current legislation.

Similarly, a “tribunal support order” is distinct from the concept of a guardianship order.

But what if the person in need of support is profoundly disabled in a way that means they cannot communicate their wishes or preferences?

A third kind of arrangement, an “enduring representation order” could apply here.  Here the analogy with an enduring guardian is appropriate: the enduring representative would be appointed by the represented person in anticipation that their decision-making ability might be reduced in future.

Under the proposed Act, the functions of the enduring representative, and limits on them, would be set out in the instrument of appointment.

Finally, the Commission envisages “representation orders” as a mechanism of last resort, which would replace current arrangements for guardianship and financial management under the Guardianship Act.

A “Public Representative” (who under the proposed legislation would replace the current “Public Guardian”) could be appointed as a person’s representative where no more suitable person was available.

The role of a “person responsible”, who is authorized to consent to major medical treatment in circumstances where no substituted decision-maker has been appointed (under Part V of the Guardianship Act) would continue.

Under Part V of the Guardianship Act, a person responsible cannot refuse life-supporting medical treatment, reflecting the fact that the purpose of Part V is to ensure that patients are not deprived of the treatment they need by their lack of capacity (s 32).

On the other hand, the legislation proposed by the Commission would extend to withholding or withdrawing a life-sustaining measure on behalf of the supported person (recommendation 6.14).

Furthermore, the regulation of medical decisions in Part V would be extended under the proposed legislation to cover health care decisions involving all health professionals who are regulated under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law.

As a result, the restrictions on the provision of “special medical treatment” under the current Act would apply to “special healthcare” under the proposed Act.

While the current distinctions between “major medical treatment” (“major healthcare”) and “minor medical treatment” (“minor healthcare”) would be continued, the content of these terms would change.

For example, HIV testing and the contraceptive treatment are currently defined as “major medical treatment” in the Regulations; these would become “minor healthcare” in the proposed legislation (recommendation 6.12).

 

New concepts: prioritizing autonomy over best interests

A further example of the impact of Convention rights on the proposed legislation relates to the downgrading of “best interests” as a guiding principle for medical treatment involving persons who lack decision-making capacity.

Under the Guardianship Act, the substituted decision-making provisions found in Part V of the Act exist to ensure that patients are not denied medical treatment that they need by virtue of their lack of capacity to consent: s 32.

Caselaw has made it clear that Part V exists to provide a mechanism for lawfully administering treatment that is medically indicated and in the patient’s best interests.  It was not intended to create a mechanism for refusing treatment life-sustaining medical treatment: FI v Public Guardian [2008] NSWACT 263. (Whether this distinction can be maintained is another matter).

Under the current legislation, the patient’s best interests are balanced through provisions that authorize a “person responsible” to make treatment decisions (s 40), while allowing treatment without consent to save the patient’s life or prevent serious damage to their health (s 37). “Minor medical treatment” may also be provided where a person responsible is not available to consent and where the patient does not object (s 37). Disputes may be resolved by the Civil and Administrative Tribunal or the Supreme Court.

The views of a person who lacks the capacity to consent to proposed medical treatment are relevant, and must be taken into consideration by a “person responsible” who is given substituted decision-making power under the Act: see s 40(3).  However, the patient’s views are not determinative.

Similarly, when the decision maker is the Civil and Administrative Decisions Tribunal, the Tribunal is required to take several matters into consideration, including the views (if any) of the patient: s 44(2). However, the expressed preferences of a person who is incapable of consenting to medical treatment can’t trump the Tribunal’s assessment of that person’s best interests.

The Tribunal can only authorise medical treatment when it is satisfied that “the treatment is the most appropriate form of treatment for promoting and maintaining the patient’s health and well-being”: s 45(1).

(A person’s will and preferences are, of course, determinative in circumstances when they have made a valid advance directive in contemplation of their need for medical treatment at a time in future when they are not competent.  Courts have given effect to the previously expressed wishes of a person to refuse life-supporting treatment, contained in an advance directive, even when their effect is to shorten the patient’s life: see, e.g., Hunter and New England Area Health Service v A [2009] NSWSC 761).

The primacy of the principle of the patient’s best interests, in circumstances where a patient is not competent to decide about medical treatment would disappear in the Commission’s proposed legislation.

The proposed Act would contain general principles, the first of which is that the will and preferences of a person in need of decision-making assistance should be given effect to where possible.

Anyone exercising functions under the Act should be guided by the person’s “expressed will and preferences”. If these cannot be determined, they are to be guided by the person’s likely will and preferences, as they emerge from a person’s previously expressed will and preferences and by consulting people who have a genuine and ongoing relationship with the person and may be aware of that person’s will and preferences.

If there is no such person, then – only then – are decisions to be made to promote the person’s personal and social wellbeing. (Advance care directives, previously made when the person had decision-making ability, must also be respected) (proposal 1.11).

One issue that arises is the amount of leeway or wriggle room these proposed changes give family and associates of the patient to make hearsay allegations about the values, desires and preferences of the patient around particular kinds of medical treatment – in circumstances where the patient lacks decision-making ability and there is no advance directive.

These assertions about the patient’s values and preferences are given considerable weight in the Commission’s proposed recommendations.  The proposals are intended to honour the autonomy of a patient who cannot express it directly.

Will the proposed changes demonstrably serve the interests of those who lack decision-making ability – better than Part V currently does?

How much room is there for family and associates to act in their own self-interest – to the detriment of the person who lacks decision-making ability?

These are fair questions, especially since the proposed legislation would extend to refusals of life-supporting medical treatment, not only the provision of needed treatment to which a patient cannot consent.

Are you interested in health law?  Click here to see the units of study on offer in 2018 in Sydney Law School’s Master of Health Law and Graduate Diploma in Health Law.

A Foundation for a smoke-free world…funded by a cigarette multinational: more smoke and mirrors?

The Swiss like butter on both sides of their toast.

Headquartered in Lausanne, half an hour’s train ride from the World Health Organisation in Geneva, you’ll find the headquarters of the world’s most profitable tobacco company, Philip Morris International (PMI).

Makers of Marlboro and other global brands.

A few years ago, at the end of a very long interview, held in the PMI Boardroom, I asked a senior PMI executive what he would most like to tell the public health community.

This gentleman, although friendly and accommodating, had smoked all over me for three solid hours.

He said:

“I would like the public health community to try to spend some time listening to what Philip Morris has to say and to see whether or not we can reach some kind of agreement… I think if we continue to fight as opposed to try to reach an accord, we’re losing an opportunity, and I think that Philip Morris has a lot to offer that can help shape and develop regulation, but the public health community has [got] to get beyond its pre-conceived notion that anything that Philip Morris or any other tobacco company proposes is immediately suspect and inappropriate.  That would be my number one concern…”

The wish of this PMI executive was the same as that of every other tobacco executive I spoke to: he wanted governments and public health advocates to listen to his company.  He wanted to partner with the public health community, he wanted a role in shaping policy and regulation.  He wanted “the war” to end.

Philip Morris International may be a step closer to this aim with the launch of a new entity called the Foundation for a smoke-free World.

 

Foundation for a Smoke-Free World

Founded by Derek Yach, the former head of the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, the Foundation was launched with a promise of US$80 million funding per year for 12 years from PMI.

The aims of the Foundation are to “advance smoking cessation and harm-reduction science and technology”.  These aims appear suitably aligned with PMI’s strategy of eventually replacing cigarettes with smoke-free products, and in order to get there, lobbying governments to give preferential treatment to non-combustible recreational nicotine products.

PMI’s website states that: “we don’t agree that banning cigarettes makes sense for smokers or for society at large.”

But speaking of the success of IQOS (a heated tobacco product manufactured by PMI) in South Korea and Japan, PMI CEO André Calantzopoulos suggests that in five years, as users of heated devices outnumber smokers, “That is when we could start talking to governments about phasing out combustible cigarettes entirely.

They’ve taken their time sharing it with us, but according to Philip Morris, there is an answer to the tobacco epidemic.  It seems you won’t find it in the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, nor in generations of experience with evidence-based tobacco control laws and policies.

Rather, the answer lies elsewhere:

Individual risk reduction X consumer switching = population harm reduction.

In particular, PMI wants smokers to start using IQOS, the first of four smoke-free products it is (apparently) building its future on.

Of course, PMI needs governments to play their part as well.

We are confident that the right mix of government leadership and commercial initiative will dramatically accelerate efforts to reduce the health burden of smoking.

Which is why, I suspect, substantial funding to the Foundation for a Smoke-free World makes sense at this time.

 

Independent?

The centrepiece of the Foundation’s claim to independence is the article on scientific integrity in its by-laws, which states:

“The goal of the Corporation is to promote and support significant scientific research that advances the field of tobacco harm reduction and reduces the public health burden of smoking-related diseases.  The Corporation shall not take into account the potential impact of that research on the image of the tobacco industry or any other industry or commercial entity”.

That sounds good, doesn’t it, if they can manage it?

The problem is that the funding for this Foundation would appear to depend on annual or periodic renewal by a tobacco multinational.

And that is howlingly significant.

The existence of the Foundation, certainly its size and clout, will depend on how the activities and results of the Foundation appeal to PMI’s board.

That may not be such a risk if you’re married to a vision of tobacco harm reduction that involves promoting the recreational nicotine products that PMI wants to flog around the world.

According to PMI CEO André Calantzopoulos, “The Foundation is a welcome driver of change, at a time when a smoke-free future is clearly on the horizon. We will welcome its recommendations to accelerate smoker adoption of less harmful alternatives.”

No doubt.

But if the Foundation, in all its independence, were to fail to effectively prosecute the case for harm reduction in a form that benefits PMI’s business case, surely the Board would re-consider its investment.  It would be mad not to.

 

No accident

The Foundation for a Smoke-free World has appeared at a time of unique risk for makers of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products.

I would expect that part of the Foundation’s work, pursuant to its harm reduction agenda, would be to encourage governments to make e-cigarettes more available (in jurisdictions, like Australia, where they are banned), perhaps to tax them at a lower rate, and certainly to reverse the tendency seen in jurisdictions like California to apply smoke-free laws and minimum purchasing age restrictions equally to both cigarettes and non-combustible nicotine products. (See references to California’s legislation in a previous post).

In October, New York State became the latest U.S. state to ban use of e-cigarettes in restaurants, bars and indoor public places including workplaces.  (See here for the text of the legislation).

Addressing this dangerous tendency, and promoting a regulatory environment that allows recreational nicotine products to thrive, is best framed in terms of “saving lives”.

Australia’s Health Minister, Greg Hunt MP, has stated that he will not lift the ban on e-cigarettes: “not on my watch”.

For that, I believe, he deserves credit.

We can expect a gush of Foundation-funded research, ultimately paid for by Philip Morris, arguing that e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products save lives.

Rather than focusing on implementing the evidence-based controls in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, governments will be encouraged to switch strategy towards tobacco harm reduction, which translates into relaxing controls on the products that make PMI shareholders rich.

The World Health Organisation claims the Foundation has conflicts of interest and states: “WHO will not partner with the Foundation. Governments should not partner with the Foundation and the public health community should follow this lead.”

In the end, whatever the Foundation and its leaders think they are doing, given the scale of PMI’s investment, the  Foundation will perform a massively important public relations function for its economic parent.

These PR functions are important, given that in the here and now, PMI remains firmly in the cigarette business, exploiting markets around the world where tobacco control laws remain weak (see eg Kalra et al in Reuters).

 

Reaction to the Foundation for a Smoke-free World

To say that the launch of the Foundation has been taken badly by NGOs and global leaders in tobacco control is something of an under-statement.

Distinguished Professor of Tobacco Control at UC San Francisco, Stanton Glantz, writes that “Derek Yach’s journey to the dark side is now complete”, pointing out that PMI’s funding of the Foundation represents “about .1% of PMI’s revenues and 1% of its profits”.

Ruth Malone, Simon Chapman and colleagues write:

“This ‘new’ initiative is just more of the same lipstick on the industry pig, but in a way it’s far worse this time: by using a formerly high profile WHO leader as a spokesperson, PMI can also accelerate its longstanding ambition to splinter the tobacco control movement”.

WHO points out that if PMI supported a smoke-free world it would support evidence-based tobacco control policies that help people quit smoking, including tobacco taxes, graphic disease warning labels, and comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

These are building blocks of successful tobacco control.  They work.

The reality, in jurisdictions around the world, is that PMI opposes these measures.

Outside of rich western markets, where health considerations predominate, it’s business as usual for Philip Morris International and for Marlboro, their star brand.

(Marlboro advertising in Jakarta, Indonesia; the photo at the top, from the island of Lombok, is typical of advertising by Philip Morris International throughout the archipelego)