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Doctor-assisted dying law: Supreme Court hears Ottawa needs more time for comprehensive plan

A legislative response to the Supreme Court's ruling on doctor-assisted dying requires more work, justices were told Monday before reserving judgment on the government's request for an extension. Meanwhile, the names of MPs on a special committee studying Parliament's response have been released.

Top court reserves judgment after government requests extension to draft new law

A lawyer for the federal government told Canada's top court Monday that it needs a six-month extension to draft new legislation on doctor-assisted dying. (The Canadian Press)

The federal government cannot draft new legislation on doctor-assisted dying by the end of February, as a comprehensive response requires more work from Ottawa in consultation with the provinces and territories, a lawyer for the attorney general said before Canada's top court reserved judgment this morning.

The Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments on Monday for the government's request for a six-month extension to draft new legislation. The court struck down the ban on doctor-assisted dying last February, and gave Ottawa one year to draft new legislation.

In his opening arguments, Robert Frater told the court in Ottawa that while the request for more time to draft new legislation may be "unusual," it is not unprecedented.

"Our request to this court is based on protection of the public and the rule of law," said the government lawyer, "and ensuring that there's a comprehensive scheme in place."

"The number of issues that have to be dealt with here are extremely large and they are very complex."

The Liberals, elected in October, requested a six-month extension and created a special Commons-Senate committee last month to further explore the issue. 

The names of the MPs on the committee have been posted online:

  • John Aldag (Liberal, B.C.).
  • René Arseneault (Liberal, N.B.).
  • Steven Blaney (Conservative, Que.).
  • Michael Cooper (Conservative, Alta.).
  • Julie Dabrusin (Liberal, Ont.).
  • Denis Lemieux (Liberal, Que.).
  • Rob Oliphant (Liberal, Ont.).
  • Murray Rankin (NDP, B.C.).
  • Brigitte Sansoucy (NDP, Que.)
  • Brenda Shanahan (Liberal, Que.).
  • Mark Warawa (Conservative, B.C.).

Senators were appointed to the committee last month. The committee is expected to report back with recommendations by Feb. 26.

Frater told the top court Senators are free to start their work "now" even if Parliament is adjourned until the week of Jan.25.

"Whenever they start, have they started, they're due to report by the end of February. So the work has to get done by then. That's the important thing about the establishment of the committee."

Robert Frater, a lawyer for the attorney general of Canada, was under fire from Supreme Court justices as he tried to argue for an extension to draft new legislation on doctor-assisted dying. 2:30

Malliha Wilson, a lawyer representing the attorney general of Ontario, argued Monday in support of Ottawa's request for an extension.

Wilson said that without amendments to Canada's Criminal Code, the provinces and territories will continue to experience a certain level of "uncertainty" in terms of what they are and aren't allowed to do.

"The provinces can legislate, but due to the fact that there are no Criminal Code amendments, it becomes that much harder."

Quebec argues for an exemption

Quebec is the only province with an assisted dying law that gives terminally ill patients the choice to die with medical help

Jean-Yves Bernard, lawyer for the attorney general in Quebec, argued in favour of an exemption.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association spearheaded the case on behalf of two women, Kay Carter and Gloria Taylor, both of whom have died since the legal battle began.

Lawyer Joseph Arvay, who represents the parties in the Carter legal case, said they "adamantly" opposed the government's request for more time to draft new legislation.

Arvay also argued the top court could not justify giving Quebec an exemption, but not the rest of the country.

"If you were to grant an extension, we would say it needs to be a very short extension, and during the extension then a mechanism needs to be in place for an exemption."

MPs Sean Casey, Michael Cooper and Murray Rankin discuss the government's move to ask the Supreme Court for six more months to craft assisted dying legislation 10:51

Grace Pastine, litigation director for the association, told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning that a further delay would unnecessarily prolong suffering.

"If there's any further delay, it will cause critically ill Canadians to continue to live in suffering and to die agonizing deaths against their wishes.

"Critically ill men and women across this country have been waiting years for this compassionate and humane law to come into effect," she told host Robyn Bresnahan.

"Six months may not seem like a long time ... but for someone who is critically ill with for example in the final stages of ALS [known as Lou Gehrig's disease] or multiple sclerosis or if they have terminal cancer, even a day of suffering can feel like an absolute eternity.

"And for some of these men and women, they simply don't have six months to wait. They will die cruel and agonizing deaths."

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