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Health & Medicine

What You Need to Know About End of Life Law in Australia

— October 14, 2021

Every adult has the right to make the decision about what is done or what is not done to their body.

Caring for a person nearing the end of their life requires an understanding of the end of life law as it relates to medical practice and aged care practice to ensure that everyone is in compliance.

It is important to understand what the law is, what it covers, how it is relevant to aged care and how it works within the Australian Legal System. It is also important to obtain legal counsel from law firms in Australia that will help provide clarity.

What Is the End of Life Law?

Within the context of the law, ‘end of life refers to the last days or months of an individual’s life. This law provides guidance for planning and sometimes difficult decisions that occur during this period. It exists to ensure a smooth departure and transition for the individual and their loved ones. The law is applied across various ages but more commonly in aged care or medical environments in cases of injury or life support, such cases when an individual’s life faces the end.

Understanding the Law

Health Professionals and Aged Care Professionals become advocates for individuals during their end of life period, therefore should understand the law.

The law improves communication lines among all parties and reduces disputes that may arise during these sensitive times.

It also helps professionals carry out their duties with confidence in the ability to care for the individuals in their care. Professionals are also able to correctly interpret Advance Care Directives so they are in line with the law.

Understanding the law also helps health professionals and aged care professionals avoid legal risk and prevents both civil and criminal liabilities. Australian lawyers are well versed and ready to help.

The Role of End of Life Law in Aged Care

The law is designed and written to cover a host of issues that may arise and decision making an individual. It is written to offer advanced planning guidance and solutions.

Health Professionals and others such as Aged Care Professionals who play important decision making roles in the care of individuals during this stage of their lives benefit from understanding their roles during this time and what the law requires from them. 

For example professionals may have to;

  • Make decisions about how and when to follow the individual’s wishes in their Advanced Care Directive
  • They may have to make the decision to provide or withhold medical treatment for the individual
  • They have the responsibility to decide whether or when an individual can be given life-sustaining treatment or when it is withheld
  • They also determine whether an individual especially in aged care can receive pain relief medication and also ensure the appropriate medication is given
  • They have selected a decision-maker who acts on behalf of the person in the event that the individual is incapable of making their own decisions
  • They may also have to decide whether the individual should be transferred to a hospital and which hospital they go to

How End of Life Law Applies in Australia

In Australia, the enforcement of the end of life law differs depending on the individual’s capacity to make their own decisions. The law functions differently across states and territories across Australia with regards to guardianship, medical care and advance care directives. Therefore it is important for professionals to look into their locality for specifics on how to implement the law.


In Australia, laws are legislated through Common Law which are laws created and passed by court judges and Statute Law which are laws passed by parliaments in the Commonwealth, State and Territories.

These laws regulate the affected conduct of professionals and aged-care workers by providing standards, guidelines and professional code of ethics when interacting with their patients.

It is important for professionals to understand that laws and codes or ethical frameworks are not enforced the same way. Ethical frameworks provide scaffolding for a minimum level of professional standards of care especially when providing end of life care that upholds dignity and sensitivity during this time. These are used by courts or disciplinary organizations during proceedings in various cases especially those involving negligence to help them make the best decisions about the level of standards of the health professionals conduct.

Because the law can be enforced differently, it is important for professionals to check in with their manager for clarification and address their concerns. They may also involve legal counsel to help them understand the law and the appropriate course of action. For General Practitioners, they may contact their medical insurer or medical defence organization for counsel and course of action. Below are some areas medical professionals should understand with regards to aged-care laws in Australia.

Medical Consent

Military medical personnel. Photo Credit: Mr. Wesley P Elliott. U.S. Army. Public domain.

Every adult has the right to make the decision about what is done or what is not done to their body. Medical treatment is only lawful when the individual has expressed voluntary, clear verbal consent and understands what is to be done to them. Failure to acquire consent by a health professional may result in legal action and they may be liable under civil or criminal law unless the treatment is provided during an emergency when the individual was unable to provide consent.

Surrogate Decision Makers

These are the individuals appointed to make decisions on behalf of the person in the event that they are unable to do so. This is usually a family member providing family support.

In most cases, the person is appointed by the individual in their Advanced Care Directive, but in the event that this isn’t the case, the guardianship and medical treatment law across Australia has instructions on who can take on the role.

Advanced Care Directives

Are instructions an individual makes with regards to their care in the event they lose consciousness or capacity.

These directives offer directions and instructions about what treatments the individual is will to receive such as accepting or refusing blood transfusions, cardiopulmonary resuscitation or other life-sustaining treatments.

Others include withholding and withdrawing life-saving treatment, futile or treatment that is non-beneficial, legal protections when administering symptom or pain relief, voluntary assisted dying cases, medical treatment in case of emergencies and resolving disputes regarding medical treatment.

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