The Supreme Court of Canada has decided to grant Parliament’s request to delay laws that would make physician-assisted suicide legal in Canada… in part.

By way of background, the Court decided in February 2015 that the criminal laws prohibiting physician-assisted dying violate some people’s rights in certain circumstances (for details, see our blog summarizing that decision here). In legal language, they “declared” those sections “invalid”.

The Court said that the “declaration of invalidity” would not take effect for 12 months so as to give time for governments, health care providers and others to prepare and possibly amend or draft new laws.

In December 2015, with the deadline looming, Parliament asked the Court for a 6 month delay. The primary reason given for the delay was that the federal election interfered with government’s ability to craft legislation in time. Most of the provinces supported the request for delay. Granting a delay of a declaration of invalidity is very unusual because the Court has also declared the law to be invalid and an infringement of people’s rights.

Today the Court granted a 4 month extension, which means the law will take effect on June 6, 2016 instead of February 6, 2016. The Court arrived at the time frame of 4 months because “Parliament was dissolved on August 2, 2015 and officially resumed on December 3 of that year”. In other words, Parliament’s work was interrupted for 4 months’ time.

Those opposed to the extension argued that people who are suffering cannot wait another 6 months for the law to take effect. The Court decided to balance the interests of those people by permitting them to seek special permission from a judge in their own province to access physician-assisted dying prior to the new June deadline. However, most people who are suffering that greatly probably do not have the time, energy and financial resources to apply to court for this exemption.

In a highly unusual twist, Quebec was granted permission to proceed with physician-assisted dying because it has already drafted its own legislation and the other parties did not object. To make matters even more unusual, Quebec’s legislation took effect in December (as we blogged about here) and therefore the people of Quebec need not wait for the February 6 deadline originally set by the Court.

The entire decision is unprecedented. The Court stated that:

This is the first time the Court has been asked to consider whether to grant individual exemptions during an extension of a suspension of a declaration of invalidity.

However, not all of the judges agreed. The dissenting judges (who were outnumbered) would have granted the 4 month delay, but not the other exemptions.

 

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