LAWS6889 - Death Law

Western attitudes toward death have undergone a remarkable transformation in the last century. For many, death now takes place in the hospital or the hospice following the decision of a doctor to cease providing treatment.

As the management of death has passed from the family to health care professionals, it now makes sense to regard the moment and circumstances of death as largely medical phenomena. Moreover, as 'autonomy' has taken a dominant place amongst ethical values, it also makes sense to describe and measure death in terms of its 'acceptability' both to the dying person and his or her survivors.

In tandem with these changes, technological innovations have transformed the dead or dying body into a potential source of valuable (and recyclable) biological material. These developments have thrown up new and urgent challenges for legal understandings about the timing of, and criminal responsibility for causing, death both within and outside medical settings. These developments have also disturbed conventional understandings of the corpse as sacred.

Topics to be covered may include: death in contemporary Australia, the legal definition of life and death, medical futility and the concept of 'lives not worth living', euthanasia (with and without request), physician-assisted suicide, refusing and withholding life-prolonging treatment in adults and children, the Shipman/Patel scandals, ownership of the corpse and body parts, dead donor organ transplantation, organ sale and theft, posthumous reproduction, 'mercy' killing outside medical settings and the jurisdiction of the Coroner.

The unit will interrogate these and other contemporary challenges for the law relating to death and dying both within Australia and, where appropriate, other selected comparator jurisdictions (US, UK and Canada). These will be mapped against socio-historical understandings of the changing meaning of death, dying and serious disability in Western societies, and students will be encouraged to reflect on the broader legal implications of these developments.


Semester 1 Intensive
20, 21 April & 11, 12 May 2017

The timetable is subject to frequent changes. Please refer to the latest version of the Postgraduate Timetable.


  • class presentation (20%)
  • assignment or 7000 word essay (80%)

Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

You can credit this unit towards Continuing Professional Development (CPD). Units of study that are part of Sydney Law School’s Postgraduate Program meet the necessary Mandatory Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) of the Law Society of New South Wales and the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) requirements of the New South Wales Bar Association. You may complete this unit of study by enrolling on a non-degree basis or on an audit basis only with no assessment via Single Unit Study.

Courses this unit is available in

Master of Laws | Graduate Diploma in Law | Master of Global Law | Master of Criminology | Master of Health Law | Graduate Diploma in Criminology | Graduate Diploma in Health Law