Whose life savings are they anyway? Wife sections husband to stop deathbed spree

Doctors step in to stop terminally ill – and usually frugal – man from buying lavish gifts

Diagnosed with terminal cancer and flush with cash thanks to a life insurance pay-out, a Sydney man bought gifts for his friends, took a foreign holiday and donated money to deserving causes. The spending spree so alarmed his wife – and his doctors – that he was locked up in a psychiatric unit. It was only after two appeals that he was discharged. Three months later, he died.

The 62-year-old, identified only as J, received A$700,000 (£470,000) from his life insurance and pension companies after learning in May last year that he had pancreatic cancer and only six months to live. Normally frugal with money, he flew to Eastern Europe to visit his son, and bought airfares for family and friends overseas to attend his mother's 90th birthday party.

He also gave money to "women in Thailand", according to court documents, and talked about setting up an international charity.

In August, two psychiatrists, alerted by his third wife, and some of his friends, decided he should be sectioned, on the grounds that he was "at risk of dissipating his money unwisely" and "needed protection from unwise expenditure of his money by reason of mental illness". J found himself in the mental health unit of Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital.

The New South Wales Supreme Court heard that he engaged lawyers to challenge his detention, but was obstructed by his doctors, who considered the legal fees yet another extravagance. His solicitor was not allowed to see him in private, or to take pen and paper into the meeting. The Mental Health Tribunal decreed that he should be detained for another month because he needed further hospital treatment.

It was only when the case reached the Supreme Court that sanity began to prevail. Criticising both the doctors and the tribunal, and noting that J's wife "might be expected to inherit" any money that was left over, Justice Richard White questioned why those close to him had not simply sought a court order to manage his financial affairs.

In his judgment, which has only just come to light, Justice White ruled that J was being detained illegally, and ordered him to be discharged. In December he died in a hospice, with his wife, with whom he had reconciled in his final months, by his side.

His doctors included one of Australia's most eminent psychiatrists, Professor Gordon Parker, who described the case as "tragic" but said the appeals process had functioned perfectly.

Mr Bartos told The Independent: "J's wife was concerned that he was spending the money too freely or giving it away. In fact, he was not spending huge amounts of money. It seems quite an extraordinary situation that you keep someone locked up in a hospital, which I visited once and is a fairly ghastly place, especially when you've got only a couple of months to live, on that basis."

Although the judge said there was evidence that J suffered from mania and had a history of depression, his barrister disputed that he had been mentally ill. "He appeared to be manic and agitated, but to what extent that was the result of him having the diagnosis of terminal cancer and being held in a mental health institution with only a few months to live … who knows what was the cause of it?"

Before being sectioned, J had tried to buy properties and talked about setting up a business, giving his bank details to friends and hospital staff.

John Kaye, health spokesman for the Greens party, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the case raised questions about how many patients were "left languishing" in hospital. "The system failed until it reached the Supreme Court," he said. "That's a complex and expensive solution."