Ethics and Legal Issues


Ethical and legal issues are front and centre in the practice of medicine, especially psychiatry. They are also important in psychiatric research. Research in ethical and legal areas is targeted both at how we already do things and how things should be done.

Current Research Projects

The Sydney Medical School is undertaking research into ethical and legal issues on a number of fronts. These are outlined below. Details and specific publications may be sought by following the hyperlinks to the academics’ personal pages.

Unique among the medical specialties, psychiatry frequently involves treating people who are actively objecting to treatment and this is the main reason that psychiatric activities are governed by their own acts of parliament. Drs Christopher Ryan and Olav Nielssen in association with colleagues from New South Wales University and Sydney University’s Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine are involved in a number of research projects aimed at improving these laws. A/Profs Michael Robertson, Glenn Hunt and Dr Christopher Ryan are involved in a study with colleagues from the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine and the Sydney Law School aimed at discovering how these laws are understood by patients and clinicians and how they impact on them.

Patients have a legal or moral right to information about their diagnosis, but there is very little research on delivering difficult new in psychiatric settings. A/Profs Glenn Hunt and Michael Robertson and Prof Garry Walter have been involved in a number of studies highlighting the dilemmas doctors face when telling patients they have a mental illness.

Doctors are frequently the subject of legal action after claims of negligence or impairment. Prof Garry Walter and Emeritus Professor Christopher Tennant have been working with the New South Wales Institute of Psychiatry and other colleagues to determine the impact of these proceedings on the clinicians affected.

The advent of the new social media – twitter, Facebook and the like – have presented a range of new ethical and legal challenges for psychiatrists. A/Prof Anthony Harris and Drs Christopher Ryan and colleagues are investigating the ethical challenges raised by these developments and setting down guidelines to assist clinicians in dealing with them.

Prof Garry Walter, A/Prof Michael Robertson and Dr Christopher Ryan have recently examined the conflict of interest as it pertains to the pharmaceutical industry. Prof Walter is also examining publishing ethics and, with colleagues at Yale and Columbia Universities, various ethical issues in child psychiatry.

Body integrity identity disorder is an extremely rare condition where sufferers feel compelled to seek the amputation of perfectly normal limbs. Drs Christopher Ryan and Tarra Shaw have been examining the ethical issues around these requests and are about to review the legal aspects in association with colleagues from Sydney Law School. Dr Christopher Ryan and colleagues are also teaming up with Sydney Law School to investigate the role of psychiatrists in the termination of pregnancy.


Discipline members with an interest in Ethics and Legal Issues are:

  • Dr Olav Nielssen