Lecretia Seales: Court declines jurisdiction in euthanasia case

  • 05/06/2015

Lecretia Seales' husband has challenged John Key and other MPs to open the debate on assisted suicide as the court rules the decision to legalise it should be left to Parliament.

A decision released by the High Court this afternoon says it is not in the court's jurisdiction to rule on the matter.       

Wellington lawyer Ms Seales, 42, fought for the right to allow her GP to help her die without fear of being prosecuted, should her inoperable brain tumour get worse.

The decision follows a New Zealand-first three-day civil hearing into the issue before Justice David Collins last week.

His judgement was given to Ms Seales' family yesterday; she died at 12:35 this morning.

Her husband Matt Vickers said his wife was "unconscious and unresponsive" when the judgement came through.

In it, Justice Collins says "only Parliament can change the law to reflect Ms Seales' wishes and that the Courts cannot trespass on the role of Parliament".  

"The complex legal, philosophical, moral and clinical issues raised by Ms Seales' proceedings can only be addressed by Parliament passing legislation to amend the effect of the Crimes Act."

Justice Collins acknowledged Ms Seales' passing, and passed on his condolences to her family.

He says he would be "trespassing on the role of Parliament and departing from the constitutional role of Judges in New Zealand if I were to issue the criminal law declarations sought by Ms Seales".

Justice Collins says the current legislation would have put Ms Seales' doctor in a tricky position had she helped her die.

Her doctor would have been at risk of prosecution for either murder or manslaughter if she administered a fatal dose of drugs, he says.

She equally would have been at risk of being charged with assisting suicide if she'd given her the drugs intending that her patient would have taken them and died as a consequence.

Mr Vickers said while the ruling didn't go their way, it made the law clear.

"The law as it is, is paternalistic, overly protected, protective and rooted in the past. It is not the law as it ought to be.

"Let's not say people must suffer against their will because we're afraid of change. It's not impossible."

He challenged all parties to work together to allow a select committee process to let the public to have their say on the matter.

"I'm calling on our elected representatives to debate this issue. To show a quantum of the courage my wife has shown these past months."

"Prime Minister, I urge you to give the public what they want and start the debate. I urge you to follow my wife and be a courageous leader…now is the time. Let us give Lecretia her legacy."

He said while the family was "dismayed" at the decision, they were grateful for the debate around the issue.

"As the debate is played out in the media, we're thankful even those who didn't share in Lecretia's views engaged in a robust and civil discourse which, though spirited , didn't once descend into the personal.

"We are dismayed by Justice Collins' judgement. In some ways I am relieved Lecretia was unconscious and unresponsive when we received it so she didn't have to hear the news."

Mr Vickers, who addressed the media this afternoon, said Ms Seales would have been the better person to have fronted the press conference.

"Her fine legal mind would do a better job of interpreting Justice Collins' judgement for you and explaining his ruling.

"But most of all, I wish Lecretia were here today talking to you because it would mean she was still alive. She died too young."

Justice Minister Amy Adams says it "certainly wouldn't" be something the Government would put up as legislation, but when it does inevitable arise again MPs would have to make up their own minds.

"I fully expect that it is an issue that will be back before Parliament at some point in the future and when it is, each MP will have to vote according to their conscience and I have no doubt there will be some strongly held and deeply held views."

"It's not something that we in the National Party would certainly look to whip our members on and I'd suspect there'd be a similar view amongst other parties," she said.

She believed the public had mixed and deeply-held views on the issue.

MPs willing to discuss euthanasia

The discussion among politicians has already begun, with two former Justice Ministers from both sides of the aisle supporting the idea for it to be looked at again.

National MP Judith Collins and Labour deputy leader and health spokeswoman Annette King both knew Ms Seales, and say the decision on whether to legalise euthanasia should be made in Parliament.

Parliament had debated the idea in two private members' Bills twice, but it was voted down both times stopping it from reaching the select committee process.

Labour's Maryan Street most recently submitted the End of Life Choice Bill, which would have legalised voluntary euthanasia, but it was withdrawn in 2013. It was picked up by fellow Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway last year, but was again dropped.

Ms Collins and Ms King both believe the private members' Bill route won't work for this issue, with the latter suggesting a select committee inquiry where people would get to have their say.

During the hearing, Ms Seales' team argued there was an inconsistency between the Bill of Rights and the section of the Crimes Act which makes it illegal to aid and abet suicide.

Ms Seales was diagnosed with the aggressive cancer in 2011, which left her paralysed on her left side with her condition deteriorating. She managed to make it to court for some of the hearing, where she was sat in a wheelchair in the body of the courtroom.

She wanted the choice to allow her doctor to help end her life should her quality of life get worse, because she did not want her family to see her suffer and die slowly.

Her legal team also argued allowing physician-assisted suicide would save Ms Seales from exploring a secret and lonely death away from her family.

Days after the hearing, she became fully paralysed and was moved into a hospital bed at her home.

Meanwhile, the Solicitor-General claimed the issue was one better left to the Parliament debating chamber, rather than the courtroom. Michael Heron QC said the law applies to everyone and is there to protect the sanctity of life.

If the Bill of Rights was applicable to the case, it was not infringed on because the claim of not having a choice in her death was a "liberty" and "private life" right which were "purposively omitted" from document.

Her legal team maintained her court case was only about her, but it has already sent ripples through parties on both sides of the euthanasia debate.

Voluntary Euthanasia Society, anti-euthanasia group Care Alliance and the Human Rights Commission all won the right to give submissions during the hearing.

Care Alliance believed it would essentially make euthanasia legal for everyone. It argued Ms Seales was asking the court to overturn failed attempts in Parliament to legalise euthanasia – MPs have rejected it twice, with a third Bill withdrawn because of lack of support.

Voluntary Euthanasia Society did not think a decision in Ms Seales' favour would open the gates for everyone, but was about her being entitled to the treatment she was seeking.

The group's national secretary Carole Sweeney today said Ms Seales' put "everything she had" into the case and called her a "hero" for her work.

President Jack Havill applauded the bravery of Ms Seales, saying she's assured of a lasting place in New Zealand's legal medical history.

"We thank Lecretia for summoning her courage and limited energy to bring this case forward," he said in a statement.

"She has demonstrated that the time has come for real debate about this issue."

Dr Havill, a retired intensive care specialist, said at least three-quarters of New Zealanders support a law change "that means no more would die, but fewer would suffer".

He said there was a clear worldwide trend towards approving end-of-life choice and judges in Canada and South Africa had ruled this year that denying people suffering painful and terminal illnesses the right to die with dignity breached their human rights.

Lecretia Seales Statement

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