Monday, June 18, 2012

The Carter Opinion: Unclear Legal Effect; Invalid Reasoning

By Margaret Dore

On June 15, 2012, Justice Lynn Smith of the BC Supreme Court issued an opinion purporting to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada.[1] As discussed below, the legal effect of this opinion is unclear. The reasoning is also invalid.  

A.  Legal Effect 

The opinion was the result of a summary trial in which both the Attorney General of Canada and the Attorney General of British Columbia argued that the court had no power to do anything other than dismiss the case. This was due to the Supreme Court of Canada's prior decision on similar facts (the Rodriguez case). The opinion states:
"They [Canada and British Columbia] say that it is not open to this Court to do anything other than dismiss the plaintiffs' claim." [2]
If Canada and British Columbia are correct, the opinion is nothing more than an advisory document. Unless and until this point is resolved, any person participating in a death under the opinion will remain at risk of criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits and/or professional discipline.

B.  Invalid Reasoning

The opinion is also written in double-speak, which means to say one thing and to mean another, sometimes the opposite. Most centrally, the opinion bases the plaintiff's "right to die" on her "right to life" in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[3] These are opposite concepts.[4]  

The opinion also argues that because Canadian law does not prohibit suicide as a crime, that commiting suicide is a right.[5] This claim ignores other Canadian law discouraging suicide. Indeed, a suicidal person can be committed against his or her will in order to prevent a suicide.[6] With suicide actively discouraged under the law, it cannot be said that the law somehow grants a right to commit suicide. Once again, the opinion's logic is flawed.

* * *

[1]  To view the opinion, click here.
[2]  Opinion, page 251, paragraph 891.
[3]  Id., pages 365-8.
[4]  See e.g., the opinion at 366, pargraph 1314, which states: "Canada argues that the right to life does not include the right to choose death. [Canada] submits that such an interpretation would directly contradict the plain and obvious meaning of a right to life and would mark a significant departure from existing Supreme Court of Canada jurisprudence."
[5]  See e.g., the opinion at 10, pargraph 15: "The claim that the legislation infringes Ms. Taylor's equality rights begins with the fact that the law does not prohibit suicide. However, persons who are physically disabled such that they cannot commit suicide without help are denied that option because s. 241(b) prohibits assisted suicide."
[6]  See BC Mental Health Act, Part 3, Section 22 (allowing involuntary admissions "to prevent the person's or patient's substantial mental or physical deterioration or for the protection of the person or patient or the protection of others").

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