Citation: 1989 SCR (3) 997
Bench: Misra Rangnath, G.L. Oza
A writ petition was filed in the Supreme Court by a public-spirited person in response to a news report of a scooterist who was knocked down by a car and died due to lack of medical treatment. Following the accident, the scooterist was taken to the nearest hospital, but was turned away and sent to another hospital 20kms away which was authorized to handle medico-legal cases. The scooterist died while he was being transported to the other hospital. The petitioner sought the issuance of a specific direction to the Union of India by the Supreme Court which read as: “every citizen brought for treatment should instantaneously be given medical aid to preserve life and thereafter the procedural criminal law should be allowed to operate in order to avoid negligent death and in the event of breach of such direction, apart from any action that may be taken for negligence, appropriate compensation should be admissible.” Along with the Union of India, the Medical Council of India and the Indian Medical Association were impleaded as respondents.
The Union of India, through its Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, referred to the decisions of a committee chaired by Director General of Health Services, highlighting that such decisions mandated all doctors to immediately treat patients without waiting for completion of police formalities. The Union of India further stated that nothing in the Indian Penal Code 1860, Criminal Procedure Code 1973, Motor Vehicles Act 1988 or any other legislation prevented doctors from assisting those injured in accidents.
The Medical Council of India referred to its Code of Medical Ethics, which states that medical professionals need to attend injured persons immediately without waiting for a police report or completion of other police formalities. It further submitted that it is in the public interest for health care providers to be able to provide immediate care without waiting for legal formalities and for doctors to be indemnified under the law in cases where they proceed to provide immediate care within the scope of their professional duties.
The Indian Medical Association submitted an affidavit recognizing that certain police rules and the Criminal Procedure Code necessitate certain legal formalities occur before a victim receives medical aid in order to preserve evidence, and that such requirements can sometimes result in the death of serious injured individuals.
In considering the plea of the petitioner for immediate treatment of injured persons in medico-legal cases, the Court through the presiding judge recognized that Article 21 of the Constitution placed an obligation on the State to preserve life and doctors at government hospitals are therefore required to provide medical assistance in order to preserve life. The Court recognized the decisions on immediate treatment of injured persons of the committee chaired by Director General of Health Services and made these decisions operative. Furthermore, the Court recognized that all doctors – whether at a government hospital or otherwise – are under a professional obligation to provide services to protect life. The Court also recognized this applies to all patients, even those who may have committed a crime.
The Court ordered that no law or state action can discharge medical professionals from their paramount duty to administer life-saving care. It further ordered that the judgement be publicized widely to ensure medical professionals across the country were aware of the position in relation to medico-legal cases.
In a concurring opinion, Justice G.L. Oza further recognized that saving an individual’s life should always be the top priority of medical professionals, as well as of the police and of any other citizen involved in or witnessing the incident. He called for legal professionals and the Courts to recognize that medical professionals should not be harassed. Further, the Court recognized that courts should not summon medical professionals unless their evidence is necessary, and in such cases, efforts should be made to ensure that their time is not unnecessarily wasted.
The Court categorically held that Article 21 of the Constitution cast an obligation on the State to preserve life. It emphasised on the inclusion of right to immediate medical assistance and stated that it is the duty of the duty of the public as well as medical practitioners and law enforcement agencies. No law will come in the way to hinder a person’s right to receive medical assistance under Article 21 and no practitioner is to be subject to harassment in the name of formalities.
Thus, the Apex Court upheld that right to life was paramount and would override medical and legal formalities in case of emergency aid