Parliament Hill in Ottawa, August 2010. The Canadian Bar Association is urging the federal government to expand the access to euthanasia. Photo/courtesy of Jeanne18, Wikimedia Commons

Bar association urges federal government to expand euthanasia

  • August 17, 2016

OTTAWA – The Canadian Bar Association (CBA) is calling on the government to expand access to euthanasia in a way that, according to opponents, would make it “wide open.”

At its annual meeting, the CBA passed three resolutions to urge the federal government to amend the Criminal Code and allow doctor-assisted dying to mature minors and people suffering psychiatric illness, as well as permit advance directives for people diagnosed with an illness such as dementia. The resolutions passed unanimously at the council level.

“You would have no limits if they were to accomplish their goal here,” said Alex Schadenburg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

Passed in June, the Liberal government’s assisted dying legislation, Bill C-14, was much narrower in scope than what many advocates had sought, based on their interpretation of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the Carter case that struck down Canada’s blanket ban on assisted suicide.

The chair of the CBA’s constitutional law and human rights section said their resolutions indicate support for “constitutional rights” as outlined in the Carter decision.

“We have urged the government to align its legislation with the Carter decision and resultant jurisprudence,” said Richard Grant. “The minister is obliged under Bill 14 to look at mature minors, psychiatric patients and advanced consent.”

The law requires the government to have committees in place by December, and to report to both houses of Parliament by December 2018, he said.

Hugh Scher, legal counsel for the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, questioned whether the CBA had expertise over the implications of expanding access to mature minors and those with psychiatric illness.

“It’s inappropriate for them to be wading into that debate, particularly absent any such expertise,” he said. “Where the bar association does have expertise is over adjudicative process, fairness, natural justice and legal safeguards to prevent against risks of abuse.”

Scher noted the Supreme Court also called for a regime of judicial oversight to protect against abuses.

“The Supreme Court left it open to Parliament to review and to strike the proper balance between respect for people with advanced illnesses seeking euthanasia or assisted suicide and the requirement of the government to protect vulnerable people and others from the risks of abuse of a legislated system,” he said.

Parliament engaged in substantial consultations both before the bill was introduced and afterwards, Scher said. Based on these consultations, Parliament “determined it would be inappropriate, or at least premature” to allow access to these additional groups “at the outset.”

In a plenary address to the CBA Aug. 12, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould stressed the level of non-partisan consultation her government engaged in its “end-of-life” legislation to find the “right balance between protecting autonomy and protecting the vulnerable.”

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who addressed the CBA Council Aug. 11, told journalists she could not comment about any specific court cases, but she did speak on the issue of legislating from the bench.

“We are very conscious of the fact that our elected parliamentarians and legislators are the primary lawmakers,” she said. But in a constitutional democracy, “citizens have a right to come to the court and ask the court to weigh in on whether a particular provision is constitutional.”

If there is a constitutional defect, the court either gives Parliament or the legislature “time to reconsider the matter or come up with their own law or if the best option is to do something immediately the court will try to adopt a restrictive remedy.”

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