A Critique of Canadian Jurisprudence on the Therapeutic Privilege Exception to Informed Consent

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Health Law and Policy, Medical Jurisprudence; general analytical framework for informed consent actions; Hopp v Lepp; Reibl v Hughes;


The Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark decisions in Hopp v Lepp and Reibl v Hughes furnished a general analytical framework for informed consent actions that remains fully intact today. This article sets its gaze on a specific aspect of the framework, dubbed “therapeutic privilege,” that permits physicians to deviate from their general duty to disclose material, treatmentrelated risks to competent patients. Specifically, the privilege allows information about material risks to be withheld or generalized if physicians believe their patients are “unable to cope” with receiving such information. It is argued that the Supreme Court’s terse and vaguely-articulated exception to truth telling disempowers patients by depriving them of their decisional autonomy and undermines the trust relationship that lies at the heart of the physician-patient relationship. In view of these hazards, the article explores the post-Hopp and post-Reibl jurisprudence to determine how therapeutic privilege has been interpreted and applied by Canadian courts. It finds that the contours of the privilege continue to be ill defined, the Supreme Court’s formulation of the privilege has been interpreted by some courts in a manner that is disrespectful of patient autonomy, and no judicial action has been taken to meaningfully narrow the scope of the privilege. While the privilege may be needed in truly exceptional cases, the courts must establish stringent limitations on its application in order to minimize intrusion on patients’ right of medical selfdetermination and reduce the potential harm to the covenant of trust between patients and physicians. Specific recommendations regarding such limitations are provided.


From Selected Works of Michael Hadskis

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