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UK News

Neurologist who is also a priest criticised by judge in life-support case

by Press Association

A neurologist who is also a priest has been criticised by a judge after giving evidence about the condition of a middle-aged Catholic man at the centre of a life-support treatment dispute.

Mr Justice Cohen said he did not think he could place “any weight” on evidence given by the clergyman Dr Patrick Pullicino.

He said he had “severe misgivings” about a report prepared by Dr Pullicino and concerns about “objectivity”.

Pullicino retired from medicine about two years ago and was ordained as a priest for the Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark, which covers South London and the counties of southeastern England.

He has been involved in a dispute in the Court of Protection, where issues relating to people who lack the mental capacity to make decisions are considered.

Mr Justice Cohen heard that the man in question had suffered brain damage and had been in a coma for several weeks.

Specialists treating him said his condition would never significantly improve and thought life-support treatment should end.

His wife agreed and told the judge that he had talked of never wanting to be a “burden”.

But his mother, sisters and a niece disagreed and are being supported by the Christian Legal Centre. 

They said that, because of his Catholic beliefs, he would not have wanted his life to be terminated if it could be preserved.

Mr Justice Cohen, who is based in London and also hears cases in the Family Division of the High Court, ruled in mid-December that doctors could end life-support treatment.

The judge said the man had been married for the best part of 20 years and concluded that his wife had a better idea of what his views would have been.

He ruled that the man could not be named in media reports of the case.

Bosses at the University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust have responsibility for the man’s care and had asked the judge to rule that ending life-support treatment would be lawful.

The man’s niece last week failed to persuade Court of Appeal judges to overturn Mr Justice Cohen’s ruling.

She then asked Mr Justice Cohen to reconsider – arguing that new evidence produced by Dr Pullicino showed that the man was improving.

But Mr Justice Cohen on Thursday dismissed her application, said the man’s condition had not improved, and criticised Dr Pullicino.

The judge said Dr Pullicino was an “experienced neurologist” and an “ordained priest”.

But he said he had “severe misgivings” about a report produced by Dr Pullicino and added: “I have to say I found some of Dr Pullicino’s evidence unaccountably vague.”

He said Dr Pullicino, a consultant who does work for the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, had written a report after watching about three minutes worth of video clips of the man, taken by a relative.

Dr Pullicino said the clips showed that the man had an “emotional response” to the presence of family members, said there was “no way” he should be left to die, and said he had a 50 per cent chance of being “independent in his own home”.

Specialists treating the man disagreed.

They said there was no evidence to suggest the man responded to his wife or other family members.

Mr Justice Cohen said the treating team was “right to be critical” of Dr Pullicino’s evidence.

“In short, I was concerned about the level of objectivity,” said the judge.

“I do not think I can place any weight on the evidence of Dr Pullicino and I think the criticisms are properly made.”

The man’s niece now wants the judges at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, to consider the case. Mr Justice Cohen said doctors should keep providing life-support treatment to give judges at the European court time to consider evidence.

The judge has heard that the man is from Poland. Polish Government officials have said arrangements could be made for him to be treated in Poland. They also want the European Court of Human Rights to consider the case. Mr Justice Cohen said he appreciated the Polish Government’s offer. But the judge said the man could be treated in England – if further treatment was in his best interests. The judge said, in any event, it would be wrong to move the man to Poland against his wife’s wishes. 

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