Family Involvement, Indepednence and Patient Autonomy in Practice

Medical Law Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 192-234, 2011

Queen Mary School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 81/2011

44 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2011

Date Written: May 1, 2011


The legal debate about patient autonomy focuses mainly on mental capacity and provision of information. The influence of the family on the decisions of the competent adult patient has scarcely been discussed in English medical law. Dominated by the bioethical principle of individual autonomy, the law concentrates on the patient and takes an exclusionary stand regarding relatives. Hence, the aim of this article is to examine the attitude of English law towards the involvement of relatives when patients make decisions, and to investigate the views and experiences of patients and their relatives in reality. Knowing what patients and relatives think about family involvement will inform the debate about patient autonomy.

To fulfil this aim, a qualitative study was carried out in six NHS trusts in England. The study was based on in-depth interviews conducted with patients who suffer from long-term illnesses, and their relatives. In the interviews, patients stated that the relatives assisted them in making informed decisions about treatment. Patients said that relatives had an influence on the decision-making process and on the decision itself, but also reported that ultimately relatives left the final decision to the patient. Patients also stated that coalitions between the clinician and the relatives mitigated the patient’s sense of autonomy in the process.

The findings reflect a relational approach to patient autonomy. When making decisions about treatment, patients needed to know that their relatives would support them no matter what they decided. However, exceptional cases which demonstrated substantial familial influence suggest that the law should secure the patient’s interest in making their own decisions. In light of these findings, it is argued that the current exclusionary attitude expressed in English medical law towards the role of relatives should be changed. The default position should include the relatives in the process and reflect their genuine motives in improving the patient’s condition.

Keywords: doctor-patient relationship, family, relatives, medical decision-making, influence, independence, voluntariness

Suggested Citation

Gilbar, Roy, Family Involvement, Indepednence and Patient Autonomy in Practice (May 1, 2011). Medical Law Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 192-234, 2011, Queen Mary School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 81/2011, Available at SSRN:

Roy Gilbar (Contact Author)

Leicester Law School ( email )

University Road
Leicester LE1 7RH, LE1 7RH
United Kingdom

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