What The Supreme Court Ruling On Good Samaritans Means For India
Good Samaritans no longer have to be worried about becoming victims while trying to assist victims. The latest apex court verdict bridges systemic gaps that traditionally deterred bystanders from becoming Good Samaritans
The Supreme Court of India has recently given “force of law” to the Government of India guidelines protecting bystanders who assist road crash victims. For the first time in India, a policy protecting such Good Samaritans has been framed, which can have lasting effects in reducing the death-toll due to road crashes. Good Samaritans no longer have to be worried about becoming victims while trying to, ironically, assist victims. The judgment now bridges systemic gaps that traditionally deterred bystanders from becoming Good Samaritans.
Bystander care in road crashes is a well-established concept. The World Health Organisation, in its Pre-hospital Trauma Care Systems report, observed that “Bystanders must feel both empowered to act and confident they will not suffer adverse consequences”. In fact, the Law Commission of India stated in 2006 that close to 50 per cent of victims injured in road crashes can be saved with prompt medical assistance in the first hour, also known as “golden hour”.
With the newfound protection that bystanders have received, this figure translates to over 70,000 lives that can possibly be saved in India in just one year. To further understand the status of bystander care in India, SaveLIFE Foundation (SLF) conducted a nation-wide survey, “Impediments to Bystanders in India”, in 2014, which revealed that 3 out of 4 people hesitate to assist road crash victims, 88 per cent of whom due to the fear of legal and procedural hassles.
This judgment of the apex court provides protection for a critical element in the ‘chain of survival’ – a term used to refer to the three most important aspects for survival of a trauma victim – bystander care, ambulatory care, and in-hospital care. Given the fragmented Emergency Medical Services (EMS) system in India, bystanders can play a crucial role to kick start the survival process.
Unfortunately though, this is a rare occurrence in India, and the hesitation of bystanders to help has made survival for victims on Indian roads an ordeal. The fear of getting sucked into systemic hurdles compels bystanders to refrain from helping even when they know they really need to. If people are given the assurance against having to reveal their identity, or make payment of medical dues when they rush a victim to the emergency ward, road crash victims would be a lot safer.
The implications of this judgment of March 30, 2016 are far reaching, and addresses exactly the above. Bystanders need not worry anymore about the impediments that they earlier used to face. Good Samaritans can now take an injured person to hospital, and leave for their day-to-day activities without having to provide any personal details. They can also be given an acknowledgement by the hospital for bringing an injured person for immediate emergency care. Individuals cannot be compelled to reveal their name or any other details even to the police or on the Medico-legal Case (MLC) form provided in hospitals. In fact, coercion or intimidation to provide details could result in strict disciplinary action against any public official.
Even if a Good Samaritan wishes to provide his details for the benefit of investigative authorities, he can be examined only on a single occasion within the framework of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) laid down by the Apex Court. Further, the lack of response by a doctor in such cases shall now constitute as “Professional Misconduct” under Indian Medical Council regulations, thereby fixing accountability on doctors as well.
The initiation of a PIL by SLF in the Supreme Court in 2012 was prompted by lacunae in the system that previously existed. SLF sought a comprehensive legal framework protecting Good Samaritans from ensuing legal and procedural hassles. While it was initially opposed by the government, intensive advocacy campaign throughout the period got the attention of the public, the media, and eventually even the government. On the direction from the Supreme Court, the government issued detailed guidelines – the first step in India’s journey towards Good Samaritan protection – providing for procedures for the Police, hospitals and courts to follow while handling such matters with sensitivity.
However, since the executive order with the guidelines was not binding on anyone, the Government agreed that the Court could exercise its inherent jurisdiction and make these guidelines binding on all States and Union Territories until a legislation is passed. The Court realized the challenge and used its exclusive powers enshrined in the Constitution to give the guidelines the force of law. A move rarely taken by the Court, its invoking of Article 141 and 142 practically makes these guidelines equivalent to a law.
This judgment, along with the protection it provides, is unprecedented. However, the challenge of implementation still remains. For effective ground-level change, it is imperative that the common man is aware of how crucial he can be in saving a person’s life. An online portal, www.goodsamaritanlaw.in, has been launched to inform people of their rights, and act as a mechanism to report any harassment that they face. In order to expand the reach of the Supreme Court judgment, many States are now even warming up to the idea of a State Good Samaritan Law. Considering that police, health and lower Judiciary are State subjects, a State law will contribute towards effective implementation and create a framework of accountability. In fact, Rajasthan and Karnataka have moved swiftly to bring a draft Bill to the forefront.
The SC judgment is historic in many respects. Not only are you now protected by a legal framework, such massive reforms with a focus on public-centric simplification of procedures are a first in post-independent India. With many of our laws, rules and procedures still reeling under a colonial hangover, this issue has fortunately broken itself from inertia.
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