Reasonable expectations of privacy in non-disclosure of familial genetic risk: What is it reasonable to expect?

This article by legal scholar Vicki Chico is based on the ABC v St George's Healthcare NHS trust court case
1st May 2019


Where there is conflict between a patient's interests in non-disclosure of their genetic information to relatives and the relative's interest in knowing the information because it indicates their genetic risk, clinicians have customarily been able to protect themselves against legal action by maintaining confidence even if, professionally, they did not consider this to be the right thing to do. In ABC v St Georges Healthcare NHS Trust ([2017] EWCA Civ 336) the healthcare team recorded their concern about the wisdom of the patient's decision to withhold genetic risk information from his relative, but chose to respect what they considered to be an unwise choice. Even though professional guidance considers that clinicians have the discretion to breach confidence where they believe this to be justified, (Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Pathologists and the British Society of Human Genetics, 2006; GMC, 2017) clinicians find it difficult to exercise this discretion in line with their convictions against the backdrop of the legal prioritisation of the duty to maintain confidence. Thus, the professional discretion is not being freely exercised because of doubts about the legal protection available in the event of disclosure. The reliance on consent as the legal basis for setting aside the duty of confidence often vetoes sharing information with relatives. This paper argues that an objective approach based on privacy, rather than a subjective consent-based approach, would give greater freedom to clinicians to exercise the discretion which their professional guidance affords.


Chico V (2019) Reasonable expectations of privacy in non-disclosure of familial genetic risk: What is it reasonable to expect? European Journal of Medical Genetics, vol. 62, issue 5, pp 308-301, May