Should failure to act be considered a crime?

Is the UK justice system lagging behind the rest of the world by failing to implement a “good Samaritan law”?

When considering the law of criminal acts, the clear majority of legislation involves actually committing a criminal act i.e. murder, battery, rape. However, there are certain laws which make it a criminal offence to not do something. For example, under the Road Traffic Act 1988, it is an offence to, without good reason, fail to cooperate with a breathalyser test when requested. Additionally, certain relationships constitute a legal duty of care. For example, parents must care for their children and doctors must act in the best interest of their patients; a failure to do this could result in a criminal offence.

Despite there being a few exceptions, the UK largely operates on the general rule that there is no criminal liability for an ‘omission’ (a failure to act). Under current UK law, if when walking through Singleton Park you notice a person on their own bleeding profusely, you are under no obligation to help them and you can just walk on by. Similarly, if you notice a child drowning in the lake, you can stand there and do nothing to help and have no fear of any prosecution. These may seem like extreme examples but these are the facts of our current legal system. However, is it right to leave a person to die when you had the potential to save them? Is it right that you would face no criminal action for abandoning such a person in need?

Many countries around the world, (China, Germany, Israel, France and Russia to name but a few) have imposed laws which state that if you see a person who is in obvious peril and you’re in a position to help them without becoming a victim yourself, then you must do so.

Germany is one country which has, for a long time, made an offence of failing to render assistance to a person in peril. Furthermore, protection is given to those who help through Statutory Accident Insurance, (in case you suffer any injury, losses or damage through your actions to help) and which also guarantees you cannot and will not be prosecuted or sued for genuinely trying to help, even if you inadvertently made the situation worse. Israel requires, by law, that all citizens must assist a person in danger, or at least call for help. Similarly to Germany, those in Israel are not liable for damages caused through giving assistance. Personally, I feel like these example laws demonstrate a society which is far more socially conscious than our own; a society where total strangers can be relied upon to help when required to do so.

Those opposed to the idea of implementing such a law argue that we should not have to demand morally right actions from people, and instead, we should expect good actions without the need to legally demand them. Although I entirely agree with the premise of this idea, the harsh reality is that we, unfortunately, cannot always rely on people to do the right thing. We shouldn’t have to impose laws which says ‘do not kill’, ‘do not thieve’ or ‘do not rape’ but sadly these laws are necessary. As a result of this, myself and many others believe that a law to demand people to do the right thing when seeing a person in peril is in fact very necessary.

Whilst it is important to respect each individual’s autonomy and freedom of choice, in society we are not autonomous beings, we are all interdependent on one another; everybody has some kind of role within society. By implementing a law where every person is bound to assist those in need of assistance, even by way of calling 999, we can move forward into a society where every person cooperates and ensure the safety of each other. The implementation of the Good Samaritan law is not only legally practical (other countries have successfully implemented and enforced it), but it is also socially necessary and the morally correct thing to do for the betterment of society.


By Meryl Hanmer


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