The Right to Die: New Legislation in Quebec Sends Ripples through Canada

7th June:  Legal specialists don’t merely take an interest in their own provinces. They also follow developments in other regions of Canada. Precedents set in other jurisdictions can often forecast policies at home. Criminal lawyers in Vancouver and elsewhere had their eyes on Quebec this month, as the national assembly passed legislation on the “right to die.” This is the first of its kind in Canada.

Codified as “end of life health care,” and not “assisted suicide” the new laws allow medical professionals to give lethal medication to patients who are terminally ill. According to the legislation, the patient must fill out a consent form and have approval from two doctors. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal throughout Canada and opponents claim that the new law violates the Canadian Criminal Code.

Will the New Legislation Survive Federal Challenges?

There is some doubt as to whether the legislation will survive at all. There are certain to be strong court challenges. The bill raises all kinds of questions about medical codes of ethics. There is no consensus as to whether euthanasia can be classified as a medical act. Those who oppose the bill feel that it undermines and contradicts the duty of care provided by doctors. Supporters express the wish among many terminally ill patients to have a say in how they depart this world.

The bill has not come out of the blue. It has been in the pipeline for four years now, and gone through numerous processes and public hearings. A judicial confrontation now beckons between Quebec and Ottawa. This is in effect a confrontation between provincial and federal law. The battle is likely to be won and lost in the dense forests of legal terminology. The assembly in Quebec will argue that this is a health matter and does not fall under criminal law. But in reality a deeper ethical question is at play.

What Impact Might This Have on Criminal Lawyers in Vancouver?

British Columbia is no stranger to this debate. As recently as 2013, the Court of Appeal in B.C. upheld Canada’s stance on assisted suicide following a federal appeal. The provincial Supreme Court had initially ruled that assisted suicide (under strict conditions) was consistent with Charter rights for terminally ill Canadians.

Criminal lawyers in Vancouver and throughout Canada will continue to watch this story keenly. If Quebec’s stance is upheld it will send ripples through the various judiciaries and may change the way we think about our fundamental rights.

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