Canadians who can't wait for doctor-assisted dying law look to courts

The Supreme Court says Canadians who don't want to wait to for a doctor's assistance in ending their life can apply to provincial courts for an exemption starting next month. A B.C. rights group says several people are already considering that option.

B.C. Civil Liberties Association says it has already heard from people considering applications

Grace Pastine, right, of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says she's already heard from Canadians considering court applications for assistance in ending their lives. The Supreme Court struck down a ban on doctor-assisted dying last year in a case brought by the mother of Lee Carter, left. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Grace Pastine says the calls started coming in after a Supreme Court ruling almost two weeks ago: Canadians who are suffering and want a doctor's help to die were looking for answers.

"They have very basic questions about what happens in the next four months. If they can make an application [to superior court] would they qualify?" said Pastine, who is the litigation director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

"Would they need a lawyer? Could they be self-represented? Do they need to have a doctor? These kinds of questions."

The Supreme Court recently agreed to push back a Feb. 6 deadline and give the federal government four more months to come up with a law governing doctor-assisted death. But it also ruled that during those four months, Canadians could ask a superior court judge in their home province for legal permission to die with a doctor's help.

Somewhere between five and 10 people from all over Canada have reached out to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association for more information, said Pastine. Her group played a lead role in the legal fight to make physician-assisted death legal.

"Some of these individuals are critically ill, and it would appear that their situation is quite dire and that quite possibly they can't wait more than four months," she said.

Pastine said some of the people who have contacted her are likely to apply to the court, but none have agreed to release their names publicly yet.

Understanding who is eligible for a doctor-assisted death is easier, said Pastine, because the Supreme Court has outlined the criteria: individuals must be competent adults who are experiencing grievous and irremediable suffering from a medical condition. They must also clearly consent to ending their life.

"Questions that are harder to answer are: 'If I make an application, how quickly will the court hear my application? Will a judge hear my application on an urgent basis if my situation is really dire — if I don't have a lot of time?'"

The BCCLA is working on a model application for others to use. She said the non-profit group is exploring how else it can help the people who have contacted it, but wouldn't confirm whether it would provide legal representation before a judge.

Federal government not involved

While the federal government is busy working on a new law for medically assisted dying, it's not involved in any superior court cases, which would be a provincial or territorial responsibility.

"The government is not currently aware of any applications, and there is no way to predict how many may be brought before superior courts during the four-month period," said Andrew Gowing, a spokesman for the Justice Department.

The courts will have the Supreme Court's ruling to guide them, said Gowing, adding the government is "confident that applications will be addressed in an appropriate manner."


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