Paul Daly: Death, Democracy and Delegation

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Decisions on when to end one’s life are unquestionably of the greatest intimacy. Yet there is a clear public interest in ensuring that these decisions are carefully regulated to ensure the safety of the vulnerable. Accordingly, quite what legal framework should govern end-of-life-decisions — if, indeed, there should be any framework at all — is a contested question.

Recent developments in Ireland and the Canadian province of Québec offer a new angle on the question. An interesting contrast can be perceived between the decision taken by the Irish High Court in Fleming v. Ireland, [2013] IEHC 2, and the “Ménard report” commissioned by Québec’s Parliament. In Fleming, the High Court dismissed as undemocratic guidelines which would structure the discretionary power to prosecute. Whereas the Ménard report concluded that prosecutorial guidelines would be the only way to give effect to the Québec Parliament’s desire to legalize assisted suicide within defined parameters.

In Fleming, the High Court, and subsequently the Supreme Court ([2013] IESC 19), upheld the provisions of the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act, 1993 against constitutional challenge. One aspect of the case — which was not appealed to the Supreme Court — was whether the Director of Public Prosecutions could be obliged to issue guidelines explaining the factors to be taken into consideration in deciding whether or not to prosecute the offence of assisted suicide.

As I have explained elsewhere, the High Court did not follow the decision of the House of Lords in Purdy v. Director of Public Prosecutions, 2009 UKHL 45. There, the House of Lords addressed a materially identical prohibition on assisted suicide which left discretion to prosecute in the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The failure to set out in published guidelines the considerations which would be weighed in the balance in deciding whether or not to prosecute was held to violate the legality principle of the European Convention on Human Rights: the necessary foreseeability and accessibility were lacking. Significant contortions were required for the High Court to twist away from Purdy and towards its ultimate (quite odd) conclusion that the Director of Public Prosecutions has no power at all to issue guidelines (a fact which doubtless came as a shock to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who issued a set of general guidelines several years ago).

More remarkable still was another conclusion: that it would be undemocratic for the Director of Public Prosecutions to issue guidelines. This conclusion rested on Article 15.2 of the Irish Constitution. As judicially interpreted, this provision has functioned as a “non-delegation” clause. Sweeping grants of discretion to administrative decision-makers are unconstitutional. Principles and policies must be specified in the governing legislation. In the High Court’s view, requiring the Director of Public Prosecutions to issue guidelines would violate the democratic principle of Article 15.2:

It seems clear to this Court that the effect of any direction requiring the Director to issue guidelines of the kind now sought by the plaintiff would infringe these basic constitutional principles. While the plaintiff asserts that she is seeking no more than a statement of factors which would influence the decision of the Director whether or not to prosecute, the reality of course is that, for her own very good reasons, she wishes to know that the Director will not in fact prosecute in her case. Whatever the stated objective of seeking guidelines may be, there can be no doubt but that the intended effect of obtaining such relief would be to permit an assisted suicide without fear of prosecution. No amount of forensic legerdemain can alter that fact. For, absent such effect, one is driven to ask what practical purpose or value lies in seeking such guidance? There is, in truth, none. It follows therefore that in this context ‘effect’ is every bit as important as ‘object’…Once guidelines may be characterised as having the effect of outruling a prosecution, they must be seen as altering the existing law and must therefore fall foul of Article 15.2 of the Constitution…

This conclusion is implausible. The High Court was presented with two options: maintain the status quo, or order guidelines. The status quo involves essentially unreviewable decisions taken behind closed doors in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. As a rule, reasons are not given (although a pilot project has been mooted).

Guidelines would involve (possibly) public consultation and (certainly) release to the public of the factors considered relevant in deciding to prosecute. The publication of guidelines could foment public debate. If public opinion were to pitch decisively one way or another, the Irish Parliament could always intervene to more carefully delineate the Director of Public Prosecutions’ discretion. It is very difficult to see how the status quo is more democratic than a world with guidelines. And this is quite apart from the benefits to affected individuals of increased foreseeability and accessibility.

Indeed, the High Court recognized that the Director of Public Prosecutions was bound to take some factors into account in exercising prosecutorial discretion. It suggested that the U.K. guidelines should be taken into account, as well as factors laid out by a Canadian judge. But it did not explain how taking into consideration guidelines developed in another jurisdiction and factors identified by a foreign judge would be more democratic than ordering the Director of Public Prosecutions to issue guidelines.

Of course, this was probably just about as much as the plaintiff could hope for, in the absence of an order striking down the Act altogether. Not appealing was probably prudent, even though the High Court’s reasoning was questionable.

The contrast with the Ménard report is stark. Québec operates in a different legal environment. In Canada, criminal law is the domain of the federal government and s. 241 of the Criminal Code prohibits assisted suicide. This prohibition was (narrowly) upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1993] 3 S.C.R. 519. More recently, it was struck down by a British Columbia trial court (Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2012 BCSC 886), a decision which is under appeal and is likely to wend its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. This process could take some time, however, and the ultimate outcome is uncertain.

In the meantime, Québec is anxious to find some means of giving effect to a policy of permitting assisted suicide, within carefully defined parameters. The process that culminated in the Ménard report began in 2009. A special commission was struck and set about sounding public opinion. Its recommendations were adopted unanimously by the Québec Parliament in 2012. Subsequently, the three authors of the Ménard report were tasked with providing a legal framework in which the recommendations could be implemented.

The path taken in the Ménard report is interesting, though unlikely to survive constitutional challenge.

In the division of powers set out in Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867, criminal law falls in the domain of the federal government, but health care is indisputably a provincial concern. Accordingly, Québec could certainly pass legislation regulating end-of-life care. But in doing so, it could not impede federal criminal prohibitions. Legislation legalizing, or seeking to legalize, assisted suicide would be plainly unconstitutional.

The ingenious suggestion in the Ménard report is to capitalize on the provincial power over “administration of justice”. Although criminal offences in Canada are set out in the federal Criminal Code, provincial attorneys general are responsible for prosecution. Prosecutorial discretion is, moreover, reviewable only in very limited circumstances.

Accordingly, the Ménard report suggests (albeit without being clear on the precise means of implementation) that Québec could introduce guidelines cabining prosecutorial discretion. These would not be binding and thus would not displace the federal prohibition on assisted suicide. They would seek to regulate provincial discretion, not to undermine federal law. Something similar to the U.K. guidelines is envisaged.

The contrast with the Irish position is stark. Where the Irish High Court rejected guidelines as undemocratic, in Québec, guidelines are proposed as the only means to give effect to the desire of the population to permit assisted suicide.

That is not necessarily to say that the approach taken in the Ménard report will be successful. The precise means of implementation are left unclear by the authors, but would have to be carefully calibrated. The slightest misstep would take Québec into the exclusively federal territory of criminal law. Moreover, given the generous Canadian approach to standing, the courts are unlikely to be impressed by an argument based on the unreviewability of prosecutorial discretion. A general challenge to the existence of such guidelines, on the basis that the provincial attorney general simply had no authority to issue them, would probably receive a sympathetic hearing.

Any Québec attempt to liberalize the rules on assisted suicide is likely to run into significant constitutional difficulties. In Canada, federal law is paramount over provincial law.  Provincial laws (or actions) which frustrate the purpose of federal laws are inoperative. And of course, the very purpose of the provisions — binding or not — envisaged by the Ménard report is to frustrate the operation of the federal prohibition on assisted suicide.

Whatever its ultimate fate, the Ménard report’s orientation is preferable to that of the Irish High Court. Legislators cannot foresee every eventuality. A legitimate response is to vest discretion in administrative actors. Once this has been done, however, decision-making with a public aspect is preferable (from a democratic point of view) to decision-making behind closed doors. Moreover, published guidelines can provoke popular debate and legislative reaction, thereby playing a democracy-enhancing role. Even if the Ménard report proves legally flawed, it has highlighted the democratic potential of administrative guidelines.

Paul Daly is a member of the Faculty of Law at the Université de Montréal. He can be reached at paul.daly@umontreal.ca. He blogs at administrativelawmatters.blogspot.com.

Suggested citation: P. Daly, ‘Death, Democracy and Delegation’  U.K. Const. L. Blog (14th May 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).

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