The Supreme Court of Canada is set to hold an oral hearing next month as it considers whether to green-light the federal government's request for an extension in response to its landmark ruling on doctor-assisted death.
The federal government will have half an hour to make its argument on Jan. 11 and the appellants will have the same time to make their case.
The clock is ticking as the court prepares to hear from both sides — in February, Canada's Criminal Code provisions prohibiting doctor-assisted death will cease to exist after being deemed unconstitutional by the court last winter.
When it issued its ruling, the court opted to suspend its decision for a year to allow for Parliament and provincial legislatures to respond, should they choose, by ushering in legislation consistent with the constitutional parameters set out by the court.
"The appropriate remedy is ... to issue a declaration of invalidity and to suspend it for 12 months," the court said in its decision.
"The Charter rights of patients and physicians will need to be reconciled in any legislative and regulatory response to this judgment."
But the federal government is now asking for an additional six months to explore all possible responses to the decision.
In its submission to the court, it said a comprehensive response to the court's judgment raises complex issues which require extensive work by Parliament and provincial legislatures that cannot reasonably be completed by February.
The government also said civil liberties groups have put forward arguments that demonstrate a "striking naivete concerning the policy development and legislative processes, and ignore the existence of a 'constitutional dialogue' between the courts and the legislatures."
The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and individuals who spearheaded the case argue an extension would be a setback for Canadians who require immediate relief from unbearable suffering.
The association said if more time is granted, only a two-month extension should be allowed with a built-in exemption allowing individuals to ask a court to have their right to physician-assisted dying provided to them.
Earlier this month, the Liberals established a special Commons-Senate committee to explore the issue and to report back by the end of February with legislative recommendations.
The government then hopes to be able to draft a new law before the summer recess ahead of its new proposed deadline in August.
Jocelyn Downie, a professor of law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the government's decision to strike a legislative committee is a good first start but she said it is "tragic" this didn't happen 10 months ago under the previous Conservative government.
She also hopes the special committee will take into account consultations already completed including reviews by the Royal Society of Canada, the Quebec National Assembly, a provincial-territorial task force and a federal panel that recently delivered a 134-page report to the ministers of health and justice.
"I hope they don't take the approach that they need to do a massive, lengthy, consultation on issues that either have already been decided or have already been consulted on extensively," she said.
"The already-decided is whether we go down this path ... that's done, that question is answered."
With files from Jim Bronskill