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Poignant end to Lecretia Seales right to die litigation

05/06/2015

In circumstances of the utmost poignancy, Lecretia Seales is reported to have died today just hours after learning that the New Zealand High Court had rejected her application for a declaration that it would be lawful for her doctor to assist her in ending her life. A copy of Justice Collins’ judgement may be read here.

As I surmised back in March (see here), when Ms Seales’ application was first reported in the media, the presiding judge has ruled that he had no power to grant the relief which she sought. New Zealand’s criminal law – on assisting suicide and culpable homicide – did not admit of any meaningful doubt in the conclusion that a doctor who administered a lethal dose of some medication, knowing of its lethality and intending that death should result, would be criminally liable.

That being so, Collins J held that it was not open to him in constitutional or legal terms to hold that in Ms Seales’ particular case, the legal consequences would or could be otherwise. The Bill of Rights Act did not give him that authority, even if he had found – which he did not – that it conflicted with the criminal law on assisted suicide. Only Parliament had that power.

In a statement after the judgement was released, Ms Seales’ family expressed their great disappointment that, having accepted what might be termed the ‘moral force’ of her stance, the judge was unwilling to take the ‘last step’. Exactly what that was thought to be was not elucidated in the statement but presumably they had in mind a willingness on the part of New Zealand’s judiciary to purport to override statute law of tolerable clarity.

Ms Seales was represented by counsel from one of the country’s most prominent law-firms, who can be taken to have known full-well that the judge could not and would not do that. To criticise him for not doing what he could not legally do is unfortunate.

It is sad to say, but this case has probably done more harm than good to the wider case for physician-assisted suicide, or death with dignity, in New Zealand. As noted in the judgement, when she filed her application Ms Seales was being given three to 18 months of life expectancy, at the outer range of which the declaration she sought might have had some practical application.

In fact, she has succumbed to her medical condition before the starting point in that range. The declaratory relief which her counsel, and counsel for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, pressed upon the High Court was thus rendered, by the law of nature, otiose in the law of people. Opponents of a decriminalisation of assisted suicide – and they were also a vocal force at the trial of Ms Seales’ action – would doubtless see their stance fully vindicated.

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