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Helping hand

A law to make people do the decent thing?

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The debate for enacting a law to protect good Samaritans erupted afresh after gang rape victim Nirbhaya's friend claimed that no passersby came to their rescue when they were lying on the road in a seriously injured state after being brutalized in the bus.

Would timely help have saved Nirbhaya's life? We will never know. But, the general reluctance of passersby to rescue victims of road accident, immobilised by the wound and trauma, needs urgent attention of law makers. Most passersby look the other way because they fear harassment during police investigation and subsequent summons to appear before court during a long drawn out trial.

So what's the way out? Some countries like France have enacted a law that go as far criminally charging those who refuse to provide assistance to somebody in serious peril, unless doing so would be harmful. In this case, the bystander has an absolute legal duty to contact emergency authorities. In France, paparazzi went to jail when they failed to render medical assistance or contact emergency authorities when Princess Diana's car crashed and chose to take pictures instead. Germany also requires that all people who get a driver's license take basic first aid classes to facilitate this duty.

The Argentine Penal Code makes it mandatory for a passerby to help, or else face charge of ignoring an accident victim, which is an offence punishable with imprisonment ranging from two to six years. Australia, Canada and a few states in the US provide immunity from prosecution to the first responder who rescues the injured victim. In India, the debate for the need of protecting the first responder started in the Supreme Court in July last year by a NGO, SaveLife Foundation. In its public interest litigation (PIL), it requested the court to direct the government to confer immunity from police harassment to bystanders who save lives by reaching accident victims to the hospital. The PIL gave details of deaths on highways and road accidents to persuade the court to seek response from the Union government on need to legally secure the first responders who help those in need.

The NGO sought a mandate from the court to the effect that "bystanders/passersby, who help bring an accident victim to hospital or provide first aid on scene of accident while waiting for the police or an ambulance to arrive, should not be forced to reveal their identities or details if they so desire, and should not be compelled to visit the police station for recording of statement or other paper work, and as far as practicable, they should be examined at their place of residence/work place. " During the arguments, additional solicitor general Siddharth Luthra conceded from the Union government's side on July 27, a good five months before the Nirbhaya gang rape, that time has come to discuss and lay down guidelines to protect Good Samaritans from future police harassment or repeated appearance as witness in court.

But a month later on August 17, the court said that those who save lives of hit-and-run accident victims by rushing them to hospitals could not be given immunity from appearance in court as witnesses. However, the court agreed to examine enacting a provision to insulate them from police harassment. Now, a committee headed by a retired High Court Judge is deliberating the issue with various ministries to arrive at concrete suggestions on Good Samaritan law and submit them to the Supreme Court by March this year.

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