Supreme Court upholds Canada’s right to reargue facts in assisted-dying case

Julia Lamb and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association are spearheading a challenge of the law

The Supreme Court of Canada has rejected a bid by a severely ill woman and a civil liberties group to speed up their lawsuit that argues the right to assisted dying is unfairly limited by federal government law.

Julia Lamb and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association are spearheading a challenge of the law that allows assisted dying only for individuals whose natural death is “reasonably foreseeable.”

The plaintiffs asked a lower court to prevent Canada from relitigating facts already decided in the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 case that overturned a ban on assisted dying.

They argued that granting their request would mean a quicker trial on their lawsuit and potentially bring relief sooner to suffering Canadians.

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled the government should be given a second chance to argue the findings of fact. The B.C. Court of Appeal declined to overturn the decision.

The country’s top court on Thursday declined to hear an appeal.

“We will vigorously fight this case at trial, but the result of today’s decision is that the federal government will have the opportunity to have a second kick at the can and relitigate lots of factual questions that they already lost in the (2015) case,” Josh Paterson, executive director of the civil liberties group, said in a statement.

“We are disappointed that the court has decided not to hear our appeal, which might have stopped the government from having a virtual do-over on the evidence from the earlier assisted dying case.”

The trial is expected to take place next November.

READ MORE: Death is a medical choice, but not for everyone

READ MORE: Number of medically assisted deaths in B.C. rise in first half of 2017

The federal government has asserted that new arguments are required because the latest case involves different plaintiffs, a different legal regime and a different set of issues compared with 2015.

The 2015 Supreme Court ruling directed that medical assistance in dying should be available to consenting, competent adults with “grievous and irremediable” medical conditions that are causing enduring suffering that they find intolerable.

The civil liberties association, which also led the original court challenge, filed its latest lawsuit within days of the federal law being enacted in June 2016.

The group contends that the law violates the charter by excluding individuals who could live for years with medical conditions that cause intolerable suffering

Lamb, 26, has spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative disease she worries will lead to years of unbearable suffering by robbing her of the use of her hands and forcing her to use a ventilator to breathe and a feeding tube to eat.

She was not available for comment on Thursday.

Shanaaz Gokool, CEO of Dying With Dignity Canada, said her organization was disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision. She said the court’s 2015 ruling gave hope to people who are suffering.

“Unfortunately, for people who are currently outside of the legislation — which is far narrower, much more restrictive, and we believe unconstitutional — they don’t have that hope. They don’t have that comfort,” she said.

People are still going to Switzerland to seek assisted death or are considering options to kill themselves, Gokool said.

For some, simply knowing they qualify for assisted dying gives them the hope they need to live for one more summer or to make it to a child’s wedding, Gokool added.

“Some people don’t have the option. They could be giving up good, quality life, but they just don’t see any other way forward. It’s devastating for people in these situations.”

A second woman who was also included as a plaintiff along with Lamb has since died.

Robyn Moro, 68, suffered from Parkinson’s disease but was initially denied medical help in dying because her natural death was not considered reasonably foreseeable. She ended her life with the help of a doctor in 2017 following an Ontario Superior Court ruling that clarified how imminent a natural death had to be to qualify for assisted dying.

The Canadian Press

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