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Judiciary has always nudged good samaritans

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In a shocking incident recently, a man who had been hit by a three-wheeler goods carrier on a west Delhi road, bled to death lying on the roadside even as more than 400 vehicles, including a PCR van, went by. CCTV footage showed a rickshaw-puller stop, steal the man’s mobile phone and move on. According to media reports, the PCR van was dashing off to attend a call and the cops probably thought that he was dead drunk.In March this year, the Supreme Court set out guidelines in a case filed by an NGO seeking a legal framework for protection to people who come forward to help accident victims. The NGO, Savelife Foundation, had drawn the court’s attention to the fact that accident victims are often callously left to their fate and passers-by do not come forward to help. One of the reasons for this callous attitude is the fear of being involved in cases.

The petition cited the WHO “World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, 2004” which says that by 2020 road accidents will be one of the biggest killers in India. The report also states that “in low income countries, the most common desisting factor restraining the public from coming forward to help victims, is the apparent fear of being involved in police cases”. Therefore, there is a need to build confidence among bystanders.

Stating that the Motor Vehicles Act and other laws regarding road safety in India need amendment, the petition cited various laws in other countries which protect “good samaritans”. It said: “Several countries have enacted such laws. In England and Wales, the Parliament has enacted the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Act 2015 which provides for certain factors to be considered by the Court while hearing an action for negligence or breach of duty. Section 2 of the Act provides that the Court must consider whether the respondent was acting for the benefit of society or any of its members. Section 5 of the Act further provides that the Court must consider whether the respondent was acting heroically by intervening in an emergency to assist an individual in danger. In Ireland, Section 51D of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 provides that a good Samaritan will not be liable in negligence for any act done in emergency to help person in serious and imminent danger. In Australia, protection to good Samaritan is provided in several states… In Canada, various states like Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia offer protection to good Samaritans…”

The Department of Road Transport had sent a circular dated February 19, 2004 to all the states and Union Territories to be sent to all police authorities regarding samaritans or passers-by who bring accident victims to the hospital. The circular had sought that such persons should not be asked their particulars and should not be detained in the hospital for interrogation.

The Supreme Court set up a committee headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, Justice KS Radhakrishnan to frame guidelines to help good samaritans until a law can be framed. The guidelines were to be notified and circulated to all states and Union Territories. The court had earlier observed that it was not so much the lack of a law as the lack of proper implementation of the law that appeared to be the problem. There is an ambulance code, etc, but passers-by are afraid to touch the injured person for various reasons. These issues need to be dealt with.

Thereafter a notification dated May 12, 2015 containing guidelines was circulated by the Ministry of Road Transport. Improvements were made to these and a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) was formulated and circulated as an office memorandum. Input from the ministries of health and law were awaited.  The guidelines include such procedures as allowing the samaritan to leave the hospital immediately after furnishing his or her address and not being subjected to questioning. Provisions for rewards and compensation were made and a provision that callers who inform the police control room about an accident will not be asked particulars. Any bystander who is an eyewitness to the accident is to be questioned only once and SOPs to protect them from harassment and intimidation must be formed.

Many more such guidelines were framed, including interviewing bystandards through video conferencing. The Ministry of Road Transport had pleaded that the guidelines of May 12, 2015 and the SOPs of January 21, 2016 be declared as enforceable by the Supreme Court until a law is enacted.

The apex court did as requested after making some necessary changes and also stated that the guidelines and SOPs should be widely disseminated by print and electronic media so that the public is made aware of this and it serves to encourage them to come forward and help accident victims.

And yet the horrifying incident, which has now become a national headline, occurred.

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The Supreme Court And The Good Samaritan
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Lead Picture: UNI

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