A sleepless night thanks to Sister Eva Longoria!
Stony hearted? No, that’s not it. Stone – didn’t feed horse? Nope! Dobbin, Dobbin, Dobbin running around the neurones. Think! Visualise the cloud, don’t panic, you wrote it down. Stone and Dobbin. Nope, Dobbin’s Stone?
An hour later I arrived at R v. Stone and Dobinson (1977) CA. I lie. I didn’t get the actual date until half an hour later when I got up, fired up the computer and Googled the answer.
Thank-you Eva, I haven’t suffered that much panic and unrest over my failure to remember a case name since my law finals.
The reason why R v. Stone and Dobinson had suddenly become so important to me was that it was decided before the totalitarian nanny state had taken such deep root in our society. In many ways it mirrored the case highlighted by Sister Eva this morning. Both Stone and his Mistress Dobinson were successfully prosecuted for manslaughter following his sister’s death from malnutrition. .
In general, there is no ‘good Samaritan law’ which obliges us to do more than is ‘reasonable’ – the lawyer’s favourite weasel word – to help another human being, nor even to save his life. We may have a moral expectation that bystanders will do everything possible to save our life – but they, at common law, have no duty to do so.
Perhaps, taking into account, our perfectly natural moral expectation, we show repugnance towards the notion that anyone might be prosecuted for a failure to save another’s life.
It has been reported that West Midlands police have arrested the parents of Samantha Hancox who died, apparently of self neglect in her parent’s home last May – on suspicion of manslaughter.
Samantha was not a helpless baby. She was an adult woman. Her self-neglect was just that, self-neglect, not as a result of deliberate actions by her parents. Her parents are elderly, we are told in poor health – not that this should be in a bar to a prosecution, you do not acquire immunity from prosecution just because you are at death’s door – though those of a compassionate nature may demand it for people they approve of, remember the outcry at al-Megrahi not being ‘sufficiently’ punished when he was ‘believed’ to be at death’s door and you will soon see that the ill health of the alleged perpetrator has no rational foundation.
I am not falling over myself to see a sick 70 year man prosecuted for failing to prevent the outcome of his daughter’s actions, albeit that they led to her death, and we may all be very premature in our articulation – for Mr and Mrs Hancox have only been arrested, not charged, so I don’t intend to speculate on their particular case, but rather on the general principle.
Stone and Dobinson were convicted of Ms Stone’s death because they had assumed a duty of care towards her by taking her into their home, and then failing to obtain for her the care she needed.
They were not responsible for her because she was related to them, but rather because they had taken her into their home, their sanctuary, closed the door behind her, and then failed to call for or facilitate the admittance of those who could have cared for her – and that is the salient point.
A rule of thumb is that parents, husbands and wives, relatives, or indeed anyone, who agrees to care for someone, is then responsible for the standard of that care, or responsible for finding someone else – calling 999? – who will provide an adequate standard of care.
The alternative, if you care to look at it that way, is that the State automatically assumes the role of carer for anyone who is vulnerable, sick, aged or infirm, wherever they happen to be. This would inevitably give the State the right of entry to every private home, merely on suspicion that there might be a person in need of the State’s particular brand of care. The state has far too many reasons to enter our homes already – do we really want to see them have the right to enter our home and remove our elderly aunt because she is no longer eating five vegetables a day, despite being perfectly healthy?
At the moment, with the exception of the current hysteria surrounding children, the State does stay at the doorstep unless we ask for help caring for those we have assumed responsibility for. Undoubtedly, when we do ask for help, the State is frequently lax in providing what we may think we need. If we fail to provide care to a reasonable standard, and inevitably if someone dies and it is unclear whether we have correctly performed our ‘duty of care’, then I see no harm in the police investigating whether we have done the job we undertook to do – ‘the care’ – to a legal standard or not.
It is sad, and emotive when that involves the arrest and questioning under caution of both a sick person and a close relative who is undoubtedly grieving, but the acceptance of the burden of caring for another adult is one of the few areas left where the State allows us to exercise personal responsibility. We make the decision to care for that adult; we are at liberty (despite the difficulties and burden of guilt social services are wont to heap upon the reluctant carer) to refuse to care any longer. We must accept the penalties if we stand to one side and allow the situation to go tragically wrong.
We cannot condemn the State for – in the case of Steven Neary – interfering in the perfectly reasonable care of an adult – but then demand that no sanction be applied if the care is not reasonable.
I am more than aware that this is a dispassionate look at the law, and does not take account of the emotional blackmail that may be present in some homes, and the lack of social services when things get too difficult – but the law is supposed to be dispassionate, and all that is happening to Mr Hancox at the moment is that the situation is being investigated.
Is that so wrong?
And will you really cheer if he is prosecuted and cleared – if it is proved that even in what you may consider to be your home at the time, behind closed doors, away from prying eyes, you have neither moral nor legal expectation that a bystander will do all they can to save your life?