Towards a law for Good Samaritans

The fear of getting embroiled in a police investigation and being subjected to the rigours of legal procedure often deters bystanders from getting involved in the rescue of accident victims. The Karnataka government’s decision to frame a ‘Good Samaritan law’ as part of an effort to encourage people to offer assistance without the fear of any criminal or civil liability, is a step in the right direction.

The governments of other States and Union Territories such as Rajasthan and Delhi are also in the process of drafting similar Bills. In the absence of national legislation on the subject, in October 2014 the Supreme Court directed the Union government to frame guidelines for the protection of ‘Good Samaritans’, or helpful bystanders, and a Standard Operating Procedure to make them work. The Union Road Transport Ministry notified the guidelines in May 2015, and followed it up with a Standard Operating Procedure in January 2016. The crux of the guidelines is that no bystander rushing to the rescue of an accident victim should be subject to civil or criminal liability and/or be forced to be a witness. Any disclosure of personal information or offer to be a witness, in the event of the Good Samaritan also being an eyewitness to an accident, ought to be voluntary. Further, the examination of such a volunteer as a witness shall be done only on a single occasion and without harassment or intimidation. State governments may also institute a system of reward and compensation to encourage more bystanders to be Good Samaritans, and initiate action against officials or police personnel violating these guidelines.

The SaveLife Foundation, a voluntary organisation that moved the Supreme Court in 2012 and obtained an interim order on the need to frame guidelines to protect the interests of Good Samaritans, has been campaigning for a comprehensive law. The court has reserved judgment on giving directions to the Union government and the States until a law is in place. The question then arises whether a Central law or State-specific laws will adequately meet the purpose of Good Samaritan protection. A private member’s Bill is pending in Parliament, and SaveLife has also submitted a draft. As the matter concerns the police, hospitals and road transport officials, besides the magistracy, it may be more effective if the State governments frame their own Acts. The need for statutory backing to guidelines and operational procedures is quite obvious. Studies have shown that a large majority of citizens are deterred from responding to an accident victim’s distress for fear of getting into legal tangles. Some countries have Good Samaritan laws that do not impose any positive obligation on bystanders but afford protection to acts done in good faith by volunteers in an emergency without looking for recognition or reward. For a country that saw over 1,41,000 fatalities on its roads in 2014, India must do everything possible to encourage more citizens to get involved in the rescue of accident victims, especially during the ‘golden hour’ that can make the difference between life and death.