Charter Rights

Dying with Dignity: Health Issue or Criminal Law?

Written on behalf of Barrison Law
glasses resting on open book

A new provincial law that would allow terminally ill patients to end their lives with medical help was set to take effect in Quebec on December 10 of this year. But this past week, a Quebec Superior Court justice ruled that key issues in the Dying with Dignity legislation contradict provisions of the Criminal Code of Canada. Although the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the provisions in the Criminal Code which prohibit medically assisted suicide in earlier this year, they are technically still the law in Canada and will be until they are struck down in February 2016.

Justice Pinsonnault of Quebec’s Superior Court ruled that because the Criminal Code is a federal law, it takes precedence over provincial laws. Since the Criminal Code has not yet been changed, the Quebec law cannot take effect. Thus, a Quebec doctor who administered euthanasia under the province’s law would be committing a crime. Although Justice Pinsonnault called the conflict between the laws “flagrant” in his written decision, he did not strike down the Q legislation, but put it on hold until such time as it no longer conflicts with the Criminal Code. The government of Quebec, however, has said it will appeal the decision because the right to die is not a criminal issue but a health matter, over which the province of Quebec has jurisdiction.

The case was brought before the courts by the Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice who sought an injunction on the grounds that the legislation would give too much power to doctors. The Coalition instead urged the province to improve access to palliative care to ease the suffering of those with terminal conditions.

The Bill was adopted unanimously by Quebec in June 2014 after the province spent six years consulting citizens and experts to prepare its law. Other provinces have been consulting Quebec’s law as a model for their own health care reform. Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybauld said the federal government will look to Quebec’s example as well.

To find out more about the euthanasia provisions in the Criminal Code, or if you have questions about a criminal defence matter, please contact the lawyers at Affleck & Barrison online or at 905-404-1947.