Quebec end-of-life law contradicts Criminal Code and can't take effect, court says

A Quebec Superior Court justice has ruled a provincial law allowing some terminally ill patients to end their lives with medical help cannot take effect on Dec. 10, as planned.

Province plans appeal of Quebec Superior Court decision that will delay law that was to go into effect Dec. 10

A Quebec physicians group contested the province's end-of-life care law, which was to go into effect Dec. 10. A Superior Court justice found that the law must be put on hold until federal laws can be changed to reflect a Supreme Court decision that struck down the outright ban on assisted suicide and allowed for exceptions in cases of enduring, intolerable suffering. (AFP/Getty Images)

A Quebec Superior Court justice has ruled a provincial law allowing some terminally ill patients to end their lives with medical help cannot take effect on Dec. 10, as planned. 

Justice Michel Pinsonnault said key articles in the new law contradict provisions of Canada's Criminal Code on medically assisted suicide – provisions that are still the law of the land until February 2016.

Canada's Supreme Court ruled last February that Canadians with unbearable and irremediable suffering could be eligible to end their lives with a doctor's aid, but the justices stayed their decision until February 2016 to give Parliament time to bring existing laws in line with the ruling.

The question of the legality of Quebec's medically assisted dying law, which was passed unanimously in Quebec's National Assembly in June 2014, was brought to the Quebec Superior Court last week by Paul Saba, the head of the Quebec Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice, and Lisa D'Amico, a woman living with life-threatening disabilities.

Saba and D'Amico sought an injunction to contest the provincial law.

Justice Pinsonnault did not, in fact, grant that injunction, as previously reported. Pinsonnault instead ruled that the provincial law must be in line with federal laws, which take precedence, and since those have not yet been changed to reflect the Supreme Court ruling on assisted-suicide, the Quebec law cannot take effect. 

It was the federal attorney general, who was an interlocutor on the case, who raised the question of whether federal law must take precedence over provincial law until the necessary Criminal Code amendments are made.

"The doctrine of federal preponderance applies in this case and continues to apply until the incompatibility with sections 14 and 241b) of the Criminal Code disappears," Pinsonnault wrote.

Article 14 states that "no person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted on him" and Section 241b) forbids anyone from counselling, aiding or abetting someone to commit suicide.

Pinsonnault issued a revised ruling Tuesday afternoon after several reports that the injunction had been granted making it clear that while the court found that the Quebec law must be put on hold, it was because of its incompatibility with federal law and not because the court had approved the request for an injunction.

Government to appeal

Within an hour of Pinsonnault's ruling Tuesday, the Quebec government announced it would appeal the decision.

Speaking to reporters at Quebec's National Assembly, Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée and Health Minister Gaétan Barrette couldn't say for sure whether Quebec's end-of-life law would come into effect Dec. 10 as planned.

Health Minister Gaétan Barrette says the Quebec government will appeal Tuesday's ruling. (CBC)
Vallée said the Quebec Superior Court drew a parallel between medical aid in dying and euthanasia.

"There's a clear difference between euthanasia and medical aid in dying. Medical aid in dying is a (form of) health care, and it's one of (the forms of) health care that is defined in the act," she said.

"This falls within the continuum of health care," she said.

Barrette, standing next to Vallée at a news scrum, echoed those comments. 

"We have experienced a consensus in this province, in this room, in this assembly," said Barrette. "We think the will of the people has not been heard at this time."

The Parti Québécois MNA who drafted the end-of-life care legislation under the previous PQ government agreed.

"I think it's very important to realize that the legislation in Quebec is really based on our jurisdiction over health matters. It's not about criminal jurisdiction," Véronique Hivon, the MNA for Joliette, told CBC. 

Barrette said last week that if the injunction Saba and D'Amico had been seeking were to be granted, the province would have no choice but to abide by the ruling.

The Quebec law on end-of-life care sets out a patient's right to "receive the end-of-life care their condition requires," including medical aid in dying, which is subject to a long list of requirements that have to be met before a doctor can administer it.


  • An earlier version of this story reported that the Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice had, in fact, won its injunction against Quebec's law on medically assisted death. In fact, Justice Michel Pinsonnault did not grant the injunction, ruling instead that key acts in that law cannot take effect as long as Criminal Code provisions against assisted suicide remain in effect - that is, until Feb. 6, 2016.
    Dec 01, 2015 6:34 PM ET

With files from The Canadian Press