Medical law concerns the rights and duties of the medical profession and the rights of the patient. Three main areas within medical law are the law on confidentiality, negligence and other torts in relation to medical treatment and the criminal law in relation to medical practice and treatment. There are also a range of issues concerning ethics and medical practice which are increasingly coming before the courts.
Questions of confidentiality arise with regard to the recording of information concerning the patient's health status and access to that information by both the patient and others. Recent issues have concerned matters arising from the advent of HIV, in relation to infected patients and infected healthcare workers and access to information by patients about themselves.
Negligence suits for medical malpractice represent a booming growth area in legal practice. Causes of action can range from harm caused by failure to remove all medical equipment from the site of surgery to actions for wrongful birth following a failed sterilisation. Actions may also arise from the tort of trespass to the person when a doctor does not seek consent prior to treatment.
The criminal law intersects with medical law at a number of points. The first concerns the matter of consent to treatment. Medical law requires a competent patient to consent to medical treatment or the doctor will be guilty of assault and battery. Medical law sets out when consent is not required and when a patient is deemed not competent. The question of consent has been of vital importance when cases concerning forced medical treatment have arisen. The criminal law will also be relevant when a patient dies while in medical care when the question of the medics' intention has to be determined. This question has arisen in a number of recent difficult cases, in particular the conjoined twins and the decision to separate them even though one would almost certainly die thereafter. Furthermore, medical law intersects with criminal law to carve out immunity for medical conduct such as restraining a patient on mental health grounds or performing a lawful abortion.
Lastly, medical law addresses a number of important ethical questions. These include questions as to the nature, quality and duration of life. These questions have come before the courts recently with regard to euthanasia, reproductive technology and sterilisation of non-competent patients. These same areas have given rise to questions as to quality of life.