Imagine spending five years researching one of the most complex and sensitive issues in current legal history. Imagine consulting widely and taking on board the varying views of individuals and groups of all persuasions. Imagine working with a team of highly-experienced government lawyers to make sure the report you bring out at the end of this process, as is your remit, is thorough and ready for enactment. Now, imagine the report being scrapped for no clear reason.
The Law Commission puts a lot of effort into reports. These documents are important and the commission, a non-political body, is made up of conscientious reformers.
Their report on mental incapacity, published last spring, has just been dropped by the Lord Chancellor. Both sides stress Lord Mackay has not rejected the report out of hand. But the press announcement made by his department unequivocally says "the Government does not intend to introduce legislation to enact the Law Commission's draft Bill on Mental Incapacity in its current form". Lord Mackay says the Government will not countenance euthanasia in any way.
The decision raises several important issues. First, everyone recognises Lord Mackay is right to consult widely on the issue of living wills and the law relating to people's life decisions – it is not a subject that should be taken lightly. But those in the know have been surprised that this could not have been done during the four lengthy consultations the commission itself carried out.
Second, the commission's report does not actually refer to euthanasia – the deliberate taking of life. It does touch on living wills – the means whereby people can decide on their treatment.
Third, the decision is reminiscent of another time the Government was caught out on a commission report on an emotive subject because of a vociferous campaign in the right wing press. This time, the Lord Chancellor may have pre-empted the kind of furore that followed his divorce reforms.