I have always considered myself to be a fairly decent and helpful person. I want to be thought of as reliable, trustworthy and capable; a person that anyone can come to for help on anything at any time. It has been so easy for me to imagine myself as this person, as if by thinking it to be true it would be so.

Then a few weeks ago my kindness and decency were tested, and I failed.

I was taking a walk in the city at lunchtime, following my usual path that ended with me heading up Market Street in the Sydney CBD. I was passing by the entrances to the David Jones store that is just before Hyde Park when I noticed an elderly lady and gentleman gingerly approaching one of the entrance doors. Without warning, the lady fell, slipping through the frail hands of her companion and landing on the marble step at the threshold to the entrance, where she lay without moving. All this happened so quickly it felt surreal to me, particularly as those on the street near me did not react to what had just happened. Or chose not to.

If I really was the decent and helpful person I believed myself to be, I would have immediately rushed over to help this poor couple. I did not. I am ashamed to tell you that I kept walking. Only for a few steps, before I realised what I was doing. I turned back to see if the lady had made it back to her feet. She had not. But by this time another passer-by had stopped and made a move to help the couple.

The example set by this stranger was the jolt I needed to rush forward to offer help as well. But I will never forget that my first instinct was to leave the couple alone, justifying the decision to myself on the grounds that the lady’s fall would have been embarrassing to her and she would not want a strange man bending over her to ask if she needed help.

As it turned out, the lady was in some serious trouble. She had not simply fallen but had collapsed and did not appear to be breathing. The passer-by quickly and assuredly turned the woman on her side, cleared her mouth with his fingers, rolled her back and breathed into her mouth with his. He then asked me if I knew how to perform CPR with him, which fortunately I did.

I remember seeing the lady’s companion with his hand on his mouth and how small he looked. I remember feeling angry that those that walked by our little group either ignored us or turned their head slightly to gawk before moving on. I also remember the flood of adrenaline and relief that passed through me when the passer-by noticed that the lady’s chest was rising and falling again. She was breathing on her own, thankfully. We called for an ambulance, which arrived in three or four minutes, by which time both the lady and her companion were mumbling their thanks to myself and the passer-by. I never felt so undeserving of gratitude.

Sorry, that was all a bit depressing, wasn’t it? I should stick to my usual writing style: lame humour and regular use of coarse language to explain legal issues to my two or three readers.

Let’s get this all back on course, then, and look at my actions from a legal perspective. If I had followed my first instinct and kept on walking, leaving the lady on the ground outside Market Street David Jones, would I be legally responsible if something serious had happened to her? Could I have been charged with a crime for walking away from an injured or even dying woman?

All Australian States and Territories have a version of what are called ‘Good Samaritan laws’. These laws say that no-one can face legal liability (whether criminal or civil) for rendering aid to someone in need (or that appears to be in need), so long as the person rendering the aid did the best they could in the circumstances and did so in good faith. The example that is always used to explain these laws is whether there is a legal requirement for a bystander at the beach or a lake to try and save a person they see drowning.

The law says that, other than in a few special circumstances, you will not face any legal consequences if you fail to provide help to a person you see drowning (or in any other kind of danger or harm).

Also, if you try your best to help but cannot save the person drowning, you are not legally liable for their death.

And if you do all you can to care for an injured person but cause them harm in the process (such as breaking someone’s rib while you administer CPR, which is a very common event) you will not be charged with assault or sued for negligence for causing that harm.

The only circumstances in which you can be legally liable for not rendering help is if:

–       You had a duty of care to help the victim and did not do so. For example, teachers have a duty of care to their students, so if a teacher does not try and help one of their drowning students the teacher can be held legally liable. Same goes for parents and their children.

–       You create a duty of care to the victim, but fail to exercise this duty. For example, if you see someone drowning and yell at the person next to you to go get help because you are about to dive in to save the victim, but then walk away the second the person next to you turns their back, you can be legally liable and deserve everything the law throws at you.

–       If the situation causing the harm or injury occurs on your property, whether you see it happening or not.

–       You cause the harm or injury because you are a horrible, horrible person.

Knowing that I had no legal responsibility to help the fallen lady does not make me feel any better, though. Hopefully next time I can be more like that kind passer-by that did stop and help and less like everyone else that simply walked on by.