Australian Institute of Criminology

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Heroin overdoses and duty of care

Media Release

15 February 2001

The number of heroin overdose deaths in Australia has more than doubled since 1990. In 1998 alone, 737 Australians aged 15-44 years died from opiate overdoses.

Over half of all heroin injectors have experienced an overdose, and more than one-third overdosed in 1999-2000. In 1998, more than 180 000 people witnessed at least one heroin overdose.

Those who witness overdoses are under no legal obligation to seek medical assistance, but by the same token they should fear no legal reprisals from doing so. These are the findings of a new report released today by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

Heroin Overdoses and Duty of Care by Paul Williams and Dr Gregor Urbas examines the behaviours of witnesses to heroin overdoses and poses the questions: "Why do more than one-third of witnesses to overdoses not seek medical assistance?" and "Are persons under a legal obligation to seek medical attention for others whom they believe are overdosing?"

"Results from the recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey indicate that many overdose witnesses - most of whom are users themselves - do not call for an ambulance because they fear police involvement", Dr Adam Graycar, Director of the Australian Institute of Criminology said today.

"This is despite the fact that police in Australia do not routinely attend overdoses and that medical treatment for overdoses is almost universally successful", Dr Graycar said.

The report cites a number of court cases in which manslaughter convictions in relation to overdoses could not be upheld due to an absence of a duty of care.

"We must get the message out that the risks to an overdosing user who does not receive medical attention far outweigh the legal risks to those who call for help", Dr Graycar said.

The report states that in Australia there is no general legal duty to rescue a person from danger, to prevent harm occurring to a person, or to render assistance to a person in need.

The one exception is the Northern Territory's "Good Samaritan provision", which in effect obliges bystanders to render or call for assistance to those in need if they are capable of doing so. If behaviours don't change, the report suggests consideration of adopting such a model more broadly.