Concern for interests of vulnerable people

Dunedin barrister and author Alison Douglass believes the law should be reformed to better...
Dunedin barrister and author Alison Douglass believes the law should be reformed to better protect people whose decision-making is impaired. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Law reform is needed to better protect the interests of some older people who are separated from their loved ones during the pandemic lockdown, a Dunedin lawyer who specialises in health and disability law says.

"How we look after our elderly and keep to the values that we all cherish, that's our starting point in this discussion," Alison Douglass said.

Though New Zealand provided good standards of care and had a strong moral compass over care of the elderly, during a pandemic lockdown individual autonomy gave way to maximising welfare of the population as a whole.

Some families and the relatives they were supporting had experienced a big wrench, given restrictions on individual liberties and separation rather than access to families in residential care homes.

And aged care facilities had adopted different approaches to family access for patients who were terminally ill.

"There is an urgent need for a nationally consistent code of practice to articulate best-practice standards for all involved."

Vulnerable people relied on family members to support them and they could also have legal authority to make decisions on the person's behalf, such as under an enduring power of attorney for personal care and welfare.

"When you take away the right to informed consent either because the person is incapable of consent or that is imposed through a pandemic — and particularly when liberty interests at stake such as in a locked dementia ward — it is important that there is a workable law to protect and promote their interests."

The Government has referred the issue of mental capacity to the Law Commission, with a view to having New Zealand's law updated.

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