1 Sep 2016

Let Family Court decide euthanasia issues - ex-PM

1:35 pm on 1 September 2016

Former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer has waded into the emotionally-charged euthanasia debate, calling for the Family Court to have the final say.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer

Sir Geoffrey Palmer Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

Last year Parliament's Health Select Committee agreed to look at whether or not the law should be changed to allow voluntary euthanasia.

It was prompted by a petition from former Labour MP Maryan Street seeking legislation allowing medically-assisted dying where there is terminal illness and unbearable suffering.

ACT leader David Seymour has also put his End of Life Choice members bill in the ballot.

Sir Geoffrey said having judges rather than doctors making any final decision would ensure there was a publicly credible system in place.

He said as well as medical standards, legal standards needed to be met too.

"In its essential elements it's connected to the human rights of the person involved. It's not for doctors to play god on this matter."

As well as removing doctors from the ethical conundrum some may be faced with, Sir Geoffrey said the family court was user-friendly, non-invasive and a Skype conference could be used if people were too unwell to attend.

He said it would be reassuring for the public to know the system was guaranteed to be robust and there was no slippery slope towards exploitation.

"That is the appropriate way to go to provide the safeguards that I think are necessary to ensure the public can be guaranteed that this law is not going to be abused."

However, ACT Party leader David Seymour said there was no need for its inclusion in his members' bill and it would not add any value.

Mr Seymour said his bill was similar to the system of voluntary euthanasia in Oregon in the United States, which worked well without a family court's involvement.

"They haven't brought in an additional layer of bureaucracy or decision-makers and so yes, it's an interesting idea, but there's no reason to think that there's a serious problem to be solved or that the benefits of having additional people involved in this decision would outweigh the costs."

But family law specialist Erin Ebborn said a Family Court procedure would not be cumbersome, especially when there were clear procedures being outlined.

"I don't see safeguards as being bureaucracy and cost.

"When you're talking about such serious issues having reassurances in place - and this isn't just about reassurances for doctors - it's also about reassurances for the individual and also the family and friends of the individual as well."

Matt Vickers - the widower of lawyer Lecretia Seales, who fought for the right to die with dignity - said he had not formed a view yet on the inclusion of the Family Court, but MPs needed to reflect on the idea.

Lecretia Seales

Lecretia Seales Photo: SUPPLIED

"Sir Geoffrey's suggestion of the Family Court being involved is a possible safeguard. For that reason it needs to be considered and looked at quite carefully and if that is the thing that gets us over the line with politicians and gets us to a point where we have something in law I would support that.

"It really is 'what are the right safeguards? What is the right process?', I think it's incredibly healthy that we are having this discussion now."

The Law Society said it would need to consult with appropriate committees before it could consider any comment.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs