The legal profession could be "sleepwalking our way to some truly awesome new responsibilities" by failing to engage in the debate on assisted suicide, Birmingham Law Society has warned.
The society, which represents the largest legal community outside London, claims solicitors' apathy could see them tasked with signing away the lives of terminally-ill patients.
The Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill recently received its first reading in the House of Lords.
The Bill's intention is "to enable a competent adult who is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal illness to receive medical assistance to die at his own considered and persistent request".
Under the proposals, two doctors must agree a patient is terminally ill with less than six months to live and the patient must sign two declarations they wish to die.
One of these must be witnessed by a solicitor satisfied the patient is of sound mind and has made the declaration voluntarily.
Jon Lloyd, a council member at Birmingham Law Society and chairman of the Birmingham branch of Solicitors for the Elderly, said the proposals were controversial and placed the legal profession at the heart of the moral debate.
"Despite the pivotal role a solicitor will be expected to play, the legal profession has not been consulted. In contrast, the medical profession has made its opinions clear," he said. "The British Medical Association has adopted a position of neutrality, stating the legal status of assisted suicide is a matter for society and Parliament. The Royal College of Nursing and Royal College of General Practitioners, are both opposed to a change in the law."
Mr Lloyd expects the legal profession to be divided.
"The arguments for change are based on an individual's right to self determination, faced with a prognosis of pain and/or loss of faculties," he said.
"Those against the proposals express concern about the vulnerability to pressure, however subtle, of, in particular, elderly people; the rapid advances in the availability of palliative care to control pain; and the dangers of the slippery slope once the principle of sanctity of life is compromised.
"But, whichever side of the moral fence you lie, quite whether you are prepared to sign what amounts to a death warrant is another question."
Mr Lloyd said he was also concerned about how the process would work, with charging a concern.
"Charging for such a 'service' could prove distasteful to many members of the profession. As an indication, solicitors are already required to satisfy themselves of a client's mental capacity to create a will or power of attorney. The charges for this could vary anywhere between nothing and £1,500 depending on how much time is involved in a particular case. But how do you compare this with witnessing a declaration a client wishes to end their life?"
To test opinion, the society has issued a postal and email questionnaire. Responses are due by February 17, 2006.
Once collated, the findings will be sent to the Government and Mr Lloyd urged solicitors to make their voices heard.
He said: "Although the profession has not been consulted, there is now a short window to make our concerns known.
"We hope Birmingham Law Society's survey will act as a wake-up call to the profession. Otherwise, we could potentially be sleepwalking our way to some truly awesome new responsibilities."