Supreme Court of Canada ruling

Archived information

Bill C-14, legislation on medical assistance in dying, received royal assent on June 17, 2016. For more information, visit canada.ca/health

On February 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in Carter v. Canada. It ruled that section 14 and paragraph 241(b) of the Criminal Code are unconstitutional because they prohibit physicians from assisting in the consensual death of another person.

Section 14 states that no person is entitled to give their consent to die, and that the criminal liability for causing the death of a person is not affected by that person giving their consent to die. Section 14 operates to prevent a person – charged with murder from claiming as a defence the fact that the other person consented to die. Murder is punishable by life in prison, with no parole eligibility for at least 10 years.

Paragraph 241(b) states that anyone who aids someone to die by suicide, whether suicide is attempted or not, is guilty of a criminal offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years. Assistance can include providing someone the means of ending their life, such as a tool or a deadly drug, or information about other means of ending their life.

The Supreme Court found that these criminal provisions had the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering would be intolerable. These provisions were also found to be an infringement of the rights of competent adults who seek to make personal decisions about their health care as a result of a grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes them enduring and intolerable suffering. These terms were not defined in the Court’s decision.

The Court found that the prohibition on assisted suicide is intended to protect vulnerable persons from being induced to die by suicide at a time of weakness. As a result, the Court found that the total ban on assisted dying was overbroad because it also applied to non-vulnerable people and prevented them from receiving the assistance of a willing physician.

While the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that criminal law must permit some form of physician-assisted dying, it held that the task of crafting an appropriate response was one for Parliament. For instance, the Court stated that there was a need for a “carefully designed system imposing stringent limits”; to protect vulnerable individuals, and that such complex regulatory regimes are better created by Parliament than by the Courts, and it recognized Parliament’s "difficult task" of balancing the competing interests of those who would seek access to physician-assisted dying and of those who may be put at risk by its legalization.

The Court suspended its declaration of invalidity for one year (to Feb 6, 2016) to give time for governments to respond. On January 15, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada granted the Government of Canada an additional 4 months, or until June 6, 2016, to respond to the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in Carter v. Canada. At the same time, the Court also granted an exemption to those who wish to exercise their rights by allowing them to apply to the superior court of their jurisdiction for relief in accordance with the criteria set out in paragraph 127 of the Court’s reasons in Carter.

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