Discussions between terminally ill Victorians and their doctors about accessing the state’s voluntary euthanasia scheme must be done in person to avoid falling foul of federal laws.
Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying laws came into force last week.
The state health department has scrambled to contact the 175 doctors who have trained to participate, warning them they must meet patients in person to avoid potentially breaching a 2005 commonwealth law against inciting suicide through a carriage service.
The offence attracts a fine of 1,000 penalty units or $210,000 but there has never been a single prosecution since it has been on the statute books.
The state health minister, Jenny Mikakos, on Wednesday announced updated legal advice that consultations via electronic means such as phones and video conferencing could be legally problematic.
She said Victoria was effectively “working around the commonwealth law” and she doubted any “federal prosecutor worth their salt” would be pursuing it.
“No one at the commonwealth level had envisaged a state parliament actually introducing voluntary assisted dying laws,” she told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday. “The risk to our clinicians … is a negligible one. But I want to ensure that there is no risk to anybody.”
Mikakos believes no legislative amendments will be required to the state law. The only practical implication was for people based in regional Victoria, she said.
“We will assist doctors to travel to regional Victoria, to make sure they can do those face-to-face consultations,” Mikakos said.
Asked if family members should avoid discussing the issue by phone with terminally ill loved ones, Mikakos said it would be an “absurdity” that the commonwealth law could apply in that scenario. “It’s not a matter I think is a real risk,” she said.
Victoria’s parliament passed the voluntary assisted dying legislation in November 2017, after a conscience vote and a marathon parliamentary debate lasting about 100 hours.
Mikakos said the interaction between this legislation and the commonwealth law didn’t come up during the passage of the laws through state parliament.
She declined to provide a “running commentary” on the number of applications from people who are terminally ill. Last week there were reports of 100 inquiries.
The Western Australian Labor government has announced plans for similar laws to Victoria, while an inquiry is underway in Queensland. Meanwhile, the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory are fighting to regain the power to legislate on the issue.