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What Happens When Substitute Decision Makers Cannot Agree?

The highly anticipated COVID-19 vaccine is being rolled out in Ontario, with some of the first shots having already been administered yesterday. The University Health Network in Toronto and The Ottawa Hospital will be the first to administer the vaccine. Frontline healthcare workers in hospitals, long-term care homes, and other high-risk settings will be given priority. Vaccinations are expected to expand to residents in long-term care homes, home care patients with chronic conditions, and First Nation communities and urban Indigenous populations later in the winter of 2021. The province has not said when vaccines will become available for every Ontarian who wishes to be immunized. However, once available, the province confirms that vaccines will not be mandated but strongly encouraged.

The mass administration of the COVID-19 vaccine could be a real game changer in the battle against coronavirus. However, a recent public opinion poll conducted by Maru Blue shows that only one-third of Canadians would take the vaccine immediately, about half of Canadians would bide their time to assess its safety or use, and the rest have no intention of getting the shot at all. So it appears that Canadians are somewhat divided on the question of whether and when to get vaccinated.

Given the difference of opinion regarding this new vaccine, it is not inconceivable that multiple substitute-decision makers (SDMs) could disagree on whether to give or refuse consent to the shot on behalf of an incapable person. How would such a disagreement be resolved?

First, it is important to note that Ontario’s capacity legislation sets out a hierarchy of SDMs.  Pursuant to section 20 of the Health Care Consent Act (HCCA), the guardian of the person is at the top of this hierarchy, followed by an attorney for personal care, representative appointed by the Consent and Capacity Board (CCB), spouse or partner, parent or children, siblings, any other relatives, and lastly the Public Guardian and Trustee (PGT). The decision of the highest ranking SDM will prevail over dissenting opinions from those who are lower on the hierarchy.

If there are multiple equally ranked SDMs acting with respect to a particular decision, they all have to be in agreement – the majority does not rule. If the SDMs fail to reach a consensus, any of the SDMs could apply to the CCB to try and be appointed the sole representative to make the decision.  However, this option is not available where the incapable person already has a guardian of person or attorney for personal care. Another option is for the SDMs to attend mediation to try to come to an agreement. If mediation is not successful, the health practitioner must turn to the PGT for a decision. Section 20(6) of the HCCA states that the PGT is required to act and cannot decline to act in this situation.

Thanks for reading!

Arielle Di Iulio