Book Review: Mason and McCall Smith’s Law and Medical Ethics (12th edition)

Mason and McCall Smith’s Law and Medical Ethics 12th edition (Anne-Maree Farrell and Edward S. Dove, OUP, 2023, paperback, 702 pages, c.£42).

In some ways, a review of this book is unnecessary.  In the forty years since Ken Mason and Alexander McCall Smith (yes, that Alexander McCall Smith) published the first edition, it has rightly become a standard text for those studying medical law, and for medico-legally troubled health care professionals.  Many will simply be happy that there is a new edition, and will no doubt already be thumbing through to see what the new team led by Anne-Maree Farrell and Edward S. Dove (both at Edinburgh Law School)[1] have to say about what on any view has been a tumultuous period for medical law and ethics since the last edition was published in 201For those new to it, however, it is worth highlight that it does precisely what it says on the tin, and provides an extremely clear and lucid guide through, firstly, the core tenets of medical ethics, and then through almost all the areas that it is possible to think of someone concerned with these issues in the United Kingdom could wish for, from public health to contraception; and from mental health law to euthanasia.

I emphasise ‘United Kingdom,’ because a particular virtue of this book, as it has always been, is that it is written from a Scottish perspective.  Whilst the book covers the position in England in relation to all necessary matters, it never falls into the trap (into which very many English lawyers, academics, policy-makers, and guidance writers, not to mention the odd judge) of assuming that things are the same in Scotland as they are in England.  There is, for instance, a very clear analysis of the very different ways in which life-sustaining treatment decisions in relation to those unable to make them are approached in Scotland compared with the position in England & Wales (although, having been involved in the project, I was perhaps just a little sad to see that no mention was made of the 2022 report of the Law Society of Scotland calling for there to be clear statutory provisions in this area).  Similarly, the opening chapter of the ‘legal’ section is particularly useful as a expert guide to the governance of the health system in all of the United Kingdom, not just England & Wales with Scotland and Northern Ireland as add-ons.[2]

The willingness of the team to express their views about the correctness (or otherwise) of the judgment or policy that they are describing means that reading this book frequently leads to either nodding or shaking of the reader’s head depending on the extent to which those views chime.  However, the team are always careful to flag contrary positions and counter arguments, so the effect is always stimulating rather than brow-beating.

And, for those wondering whether to invest in this book alongside the new edition of the (almost equally venerable) Medicine, Patients and the Law (Manchester University Press, 2023), the answer is undoubtedly yes: they complement each other very well, the latter providing rather more of a historical grounding in how we have reached the point that we have in different places, the former providing more of the ethical tools to interrogate whether those positions are correct.

In short, therefore, those already familiar with the work can rest assured that it continues to uphold its previous very high stand, and those not familiar with it are in for a treat.

[Full disclosure, I was provided with a review copy of these books by the publishers.  I am always happy to review books in the field of mental capacity and mental health law (broadly defined).]

[1] Together with Dr Murray Earle, Dr Agonomi Ganguli-Mitra, Dr Catriona McMillan, Dr Emily Postan, Ruby-Reed Berendt and Dr Anne Sorbie, all of the University of Edinburgh.

[2] I am duty bound to note, though, that one small (but to an English lawyer somewhat jarring) side-effect is that in different chapters, reference is made to English judges as “Justice [xx],” rather than “Ms Justice [xx]” or “[xx] J.”  And, whilst we are on quibbles – but this is not something within the authors’ power – the paperback printing by OUP is annoyingly erratic, with margins sometimes wandering up towards the corner of the top of the page as if the book has been printed at an angle.

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