Concerns raised about assisted-death response

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OTTAWA – The new Liberal government may be taking the same laissez-faire approach to doctor-assisted death as its Conservative predecessors did, a lawyer for one of Canada’s best-known right-to-die crusaders argued Monday.

The government may in fact have no intention of drafting an assisted-suicide law, Joseph Arvay, who represents the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, told the nine-judge Supreme Court panel.

Gloria Taylor and Kay Carter originally sought a B.C. court’s help to end their suffering, but neither lived long enough to see the high court’s landmark decision last February, which recognized the right of consenting adults enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to end their lives with a doctor’s help.

The high court suspended its decision for a year to give Parliament a chance to figure out how to respond to the ruling; the government is now asking for a six-month extension on that deadline, which is Feb. 6.

Arvay told the panel the new government, which was elected Oct. 19, may be pursuing their response “in the same way as the past government which is not how to implement the Carter decision but whether to.”

Arvay also shot back at the government’s suggestion that the arguments of civil liberties associations “demonstrate a striking naivete concerning the policy development and legislative process.”

“I don’t think I’m naive,” he said. “If I’m naive, it’s naive in thinking that the … Department of Justice has read the Carter decision.”

Any unnecessary delay in dealing with the issue will do little more than extend the suffering of countless Canadians, he noted.

“Surely, in deciding whether to grant the extension, you have to decide whether the government’s request for an extension, in any way trumps that suffering.”

In his submission to the court, government lawyer Robert Frater said six more months is not a long time in terms of the democratic process, noting that the government is aware its request is unusual — but not unprecedented.

“Parliament can choose to do any number of things,” Frater said.

“I think the government has been quite clear that it is trying to be open to all options. The difficulty in this case is that the issues are so enormous and so complex … it is a new Parliament, they have to grapple with the issues.”

Last month, the Liberals established a special Commons-Senate committee to explore the issue of doctor-assisted death in hopes of drafting a new law ahead of its prospective new August deadline.

The committee is to report with legislative recommendations by Feb. 26, according to the motion that sparked its creation, though MPs have not yet been assigned to it.

Committee members from the Senate are free to start their work now and the group will have to meet the deadline set out, Frater told the court.

Arvay said the issue has already been studied exhaustively.

“This parliamentary committee apparently is planning to tour across the country to consult with Canadians … what is that about? … There’s 15,000 pages of all of that there if they only bothered to read the record.”

The federal government maintains it is not seeking to change the landscape in Quebec as it pursues its extension.

Frater acknowledged the rule of law requires the government respect the judgment handed down by the Quebec Court of Appeal which “brought clarity to the situation” in the province.

It overturned a lower court decision aimed at suspending the implementation of Quebec’s law on assisted-death.

“If this further six months is granted, the rule of law will mean that that conduct is not a crime in Quebec,” Frater said.

The Supreme Court is still considering whether to green-light the government’s request for more time.