The Liberal government is telling the Supreme Court of Canada that those pushing for speedy implementation of right-to-die policies are strikingly naive about the legislative process.

In a submission to bolster its request for a six-month extension, the government says giving effect to a landmark decision on physician-assisted dying will require full parliamentary consideration as well as provincial legislation.

Last February, the Supreme Court struck down the prohibition on doctor-assisted death.

The court gave the federal government a year to come up with a new law recognizing the right of clearly consenting adults with intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help in ending their lives.

The new Liberal government recently asked the court to extend that deadline to early August to ensure "a thoughtful, sensitive and well-informed response."

Several parties have filed arguments on the federal request, and the Supreme Court is likely to issue a ruling soon.

Extension 'devastating'

In their submission to the court, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and individuals who spearheaded the groundbreaking case say an extension would be a setback for Canadians "who need relief from unbearable suffering immediately."

They say an extension "will be devastating" for Elayne Shapray, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and wants to end her life as soon as any legal impediments are removed — a remedy she might be denied.

The association's brief says there should be no extension or, if more time is granted, only a two-month extension with a built-in exemption that would allow individuals to ask a court to have their right to physician-assisted dying provided to them.

The federal government insists a six-month extension is needed and rejects the exemption idea as inappropriate because it doesn't fully deal with the regulatory demands of a system for doctor-assisted dying.

The government says the civil liberties association's arguments "demonstrate a striking naivete concerning the policy development and legislative processes, and ignore the existence of a 'constitutional dialogue' between the courts and the legislatures."

The Supreme Court "recognized that the task facing legislators, of weighing and balancing many competing interests, was a difficult one," the government submission adds.

The suggestion that it is unnecessary to consult suicide prevention experts and other informed parties "is particularly troubling," it says.

"Parliament needs access to the best information available."

In its submission, the government says comprehensive regime for physician-assisted dying will entail regulation of:

  • What conduct is permitted.
  • Who gets access to physician-assisted dying, how, and on what terms.
  • The doctors involved and the institutions where death will occur.

Improving palliative care 'a major question'

The federal health and justice ministers received a 134-page panel report Tuesday from the federal panel tasked with studying medically assisted dying — a document that will help guide the government in coming months on the high-profile issue.

The report, commissioned by the previous government, will be translated before its public release, likely early in the new year.

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Former Quebec minister Benoit Pelletier served on the federal panel appointed by the previous Conservative government to study and make recommendations following the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the legislation prohibiting assisted suicide. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

While the panel of outside experts heard differing opinions on many aspects of assisted dying, there was near unanimity on the desire for more robust palliative care, said member Benoit Pelletier, a University of Ottawa law professor.

"Almost everyone agreed on the fact that there should be better access to palliative care," Pelletier said Tuesday in an interview.

People told the panel it "needs to be amongst the very important options that are available to people near the end of life," added Dr. Harvey Chochinov, a palliative care specialist who also served on the three-member panel.

As for exactly how such care could be improved, Pelletier said: "That's a major question."

The panel also delved into the need to protect the vulnerable in any assisted dying regime, effective monitoring and reporting practices, and the issue of institutions that refuse to help people end their lives, Pelletier said.

Special committee to begin study

With the research in hand, parliamentarians will conduct a quick, two-month consultation on medically assisted dying as part of the Trudeau government's plan to have a new law crafted, studied, debated and passed by June, before Parliament breaks for the summer.

Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc says he's confident the process will be sufficient to build a national consensus on the life-and-death issue.

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Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc's attempt to set up the special parliamentary committee on assisted dying was blocked at first by Bloc Québécois MPs who wanted to be able to participate. They dropped their objections Friday before the House of Commons recessed for the holidays. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

LeBlanc says the last-minute rush could have been avoided had the previous Conservative government adopted a Liberal motion last March to create a special parliamentary committee that would have been mandated to consult and report back with draft legislation by mid-July.

But, apart from setting up the external panel in July, the Conservatives did nothing on the file and now the new government has little time to fill the legal void.

"It was our hope that this work would have properly been done last spring. The previous Parliament chose not to accept our suggestion," LeBlanc said Tuesday after a cabinet meeting.

"So we have the deadline we have. That being said, we are very confident that if the Supreme Court considers and accepts our request for an extension, we can undertake the proper and appropriate process to build the kind of national consensus that's important on an issue ... that's this sensitive."

The government last week struck a special, joint House of Commons-Senate committee that is to consult broadly on the issue and report back with recommendations for legislative change by the end of February.

LeBlanc said Tuesday that the Senate has named its five senators for the committee, while the Liberal Whip's office also has decided on its members.

Justice Department officials will then draft a law which will have to go through the normal legislative process of debate, clause-by-clause study by the Commons justice committee and votes in both the Commons and Senate.

The joint committee will have the outside panel report to guide its deliberations, as well as one from a provincial-territorial expert advisory group on physician-assisted dying, which issued 43 recommendations that governments should take into account.

With files from CBC News