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Consent to medical treatment

Answers some of the common questions about consent to medical treatment and explains the options available.

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Consent to treatment

Treatment for physical conditions and mental disorders

The law on whether a person can be treated without giving consent is different, depending on whether the proposed treatment is for mental or physical health needs. Specifically, the laws in Part IV of the Mental Health Act on treating people without consent, only apply to treatment for mental disorder. They do not apply to the treatment of physical disorders unless it can reasonably be said that the physical disorder is a symptom or underlying cause of a mental disorder.

The need for consent

For one person to touch another without committing a criminal offence, he or she must have lawful justification. Consent is one such justification. This principle applies to medical treatment. Consent to a particular form of treatment allows that treatment to be given lawfully. Consent must usually be obtained before any treatment is given and can only be meaningful if a full explanation of the treatment has been given.

How much information should I be given about the treatment?

You should be given all the information you need to enable you to make a decision about giving consent to be treated. This includes what the treatment is, what it will achieve, any likely side effects, what will happen if the treatment is not given and what alternatives there are. Guidance issued to doctors says they should encourage you to ask questions and they should answer these fully.

Can I be treated without giving consent to the treatment?

Whether you are at home or in hospital, if you are an adult (aged 18 or over) and have the mental capacity needed to give consent to a form of medical treatment, you are generally entitled to refuse it and no undue pressure should be placed on you. However, the law does allow treatment to be given to an adult without consent where the adult lacks the mental capacity needed to give consent and where certain sections of the Mental Health Act 1983 (MHA) apply – see part 2 and part 3 of this guide for details.

If you are experiencing mental distress and are offered treatment, you need to be aware of any legal powers that could be used if you refuse. However, the powers must not be used as threats to coerce you into consenting and if you feel this is happening, seek independent legal advice and consider making a complaint. Discuss any concerns you have about treatment with your doctor, making sure he or she knows what it is about the treatment you object to. You can always ask for a second opinion to discuss the treatment proposed. Your own GP can arrange this, or your consultant psychiatrist if you have one.

If you are under 18, the law is complex and it is best to seek specialist legal advice. It may be that you can consent on your own behalf, but this does not necessarily mean you have the same right to refuse. Others, such as your parents, guardian, the local authority or the court, may be able to consent on your behalf.

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