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Who is the 'next of kin'?

Can you define 'next of kin'? This question came up in relation to an Access to Health Records request from the parents of a young man who was killed in an accident and living with a partner to whom he was not married. With the trend for couples not to marry, and the increase in divorce and remarriage, this issue could be extremely complex.

'Next of Kin' is a rather misleading and inadequately defined term. It may be literally interpreted as requiring genetic kinship, or a blood relationship, but this would exclude not only unmarried partners, but married partners as well. Use of the term 'nearest relative' has been suggested and this could be legally defined to take the nature of modern relationships into account.

The MDU has recently highlighted this problem in the context of 'Human Bodies, Human Choices' and the issue of who may consent to a post-mortem examination where there is a difference of opinion between various individuals as 'next of kin'. The MDU has suggested a non-prescriptive hierarchical list to act as a guide when drawing up whose views should carry most weight in this situation. It has also indicated that, at present, if a person has nominated someone to give authority that person should be top of the list.

It is hoped that this issue will be clarified in due course, but in the meantime you should check with your medical defence organisation if there is any doubt as to who is the next of kin in a particular situation.

Dr Christine Dewbury, Wessex LMCs

Neither Pulse nor Wessex LMCs can accept any legal liability in respect of the answers given. Readers should seek independent advice before acting on the information concerned.

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