This appeared in a comment on another SE site:

If I am sitting by a deep swimming pool and see an unsupervised toddler child playing close to the edge - and then watch the child fall in and drown, and do absolutely nothing to prevent it - I am, certainly under English law, guilty of a crime.

Is that in fact true?

My understanding is that it would be true under the civil code, (e.g. Europe, Québec, Louisiana), but not under common law.

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    If there is such a duty under English law, a specific citation would be helpful. Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 21:16
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    @DavidSiegel, if I knew of a specific citation, I wouldn't be asking the question. It's difficult to cite something that I think doesn't exist. Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 21:24
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    Because the quoted statement said "under English law". If you want broader answers, make that clear in the question, please, and the tag can be changed. If you want one answer for all common-law jurisdictions, that might be too broad to usefully answer. The request for a cite was to anyone posting an answer. Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 21:30
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    FYI pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2017/09/… says "There is no law in Florida — or in most states — that requires someone to act when they see someone else in grave danger. There is no duty to attempt a rescue, or even to call for help." Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 21:34
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    see also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duty_to_rescue as a possible starting point for an answer. Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 21:42

2 Answers 2


Does "duty to rescue" apply to a child that one has no direct responsibility for?


I am, certainly under English law, guilty of a crime.

No, not necessarily, because a failure to act does not automatically create criminal liability in England and Wales.

Most offences require a combination of a physical act and the intent to carry it out - often referred to as the coincidence of actus reus and mens rea.

If one or both of these elements are missing (or cannot be proved) then there is no offence unless there is a specific Duty of Care imposed by law which obligates a person to prevent, or mitigate the risk of, harm coming to someone or something.

There is a simple mnemonic that may assist with identifying whether or not there is such a DUTY

  • Dangerous situation created...  In R v Miller [1983] 2 AC 161 Miller fell asleep while smoking a cigarette, then woke up to see his matress smouldering.  Instead of calling for help or doing anything about it, he went to sleep in another room so was convicted of arson - not for setting the fire but for failing to do anything about it.  This would be analogous with someone tampering with the signs to incorrectly say that the deep end of the pool is the shallow end thus causing the child to be out of his depth and drown.

  • Under statute, contract or by public office...  In R v Dytham [1979] QB 722 a police officer was convicted of misconduct in a public office because he stood by and did nothing as a man was beaten to death.  For the OP: a lifeguard will have a duty of care, under contract, to act in order to rescue the child in the OP.

  • Take it upon oneself...  In R v Stone & Dobinson [1977] 1 QB 354 the defendants took on the responsibility for caring for a vulnerable person who later died due to their neglect.  In the OP's scenario, this might equate to someone announcing they will act as an impromptu lifeguard but then do nothing to save the child from drowning.

  • Young persons...  Anyone who has a parental relationship with a child has a legal obligation to look after the health and welfare of that child.  In the OP's scenario, if the parent was absent, too drunk etc so could not raise the alarm this may be a breach of this duty of care and make them liable for the death of their child.


Not UK specific, but having once upon a time worked as a Life Guard at a pool in the United States, I can say that this falls under "Good Samaritan laws" which provide for immunity to lawsuit for bystanders who get involved in an emergency situation. "Good Sams" provide three basic protections:

  • If you are a bystander, you have a limited immunity to injuries inflicted in competently administered life saving measures you take.
  • If you are an off duty first responder OR not even a trained first responder, you are immune if for whatever reason you do not act to provide life saving measures.

Both of these do have caveats to them, for example, when I was a Life Guard and driving home from work, if I stumbled upon a wreck and provided CPR to a victim, if I did not use my breath mask and the victim contracted a disease from me, the victim could not sue me for medical damages because I was rendering aid that was "Life over Limb"... that is to say, the law assumes that the unconcious victim would prefer me to save his life at the cost of a non-immediate life threatening injury (this is one of the reasons the entire premise of the film "The Incredibles" does not work for me. The injuries sustained by the jumper and the train passengers are not something Mr. Incredible is Civilly Liable, since he was equipped to properly save those people.). And just an FYI, properlly rendered CPR will hurt when the victim wakes up... considering at this point, you are manually assisting them to breath, the greater good demands me to inflict a survivable injury instead of killing them. However, since I was never trained in performing a tracheomtry, if I did that, I could be sued.

Secondly, it does allow me to refuse service if I am off duty for a variety of reasons (My state at least. There are some states that require a bare minimum response, if only to call 911). And while at first this may seem like an asshole thing to do, leaving someone to die, the first thing any first responder would do is assess that they can safely administer their aid. If I'm off duty and see a body floating in the pool and a downed power line in the water, all that I will achieve by jumping into the pool to pull the body out is adding one more body that the next first responder needs to treat. Most people who act in first responder capacities want to help people on the worst day of their lives... but you achieve nothing of you risk your own safety. This is why in mass shootings, you will hear something about ambulances staging... no medic will go in while a nut with a gun is loose in the building... they'll get as close as possible and will roll up as soon as cops give an all clear, but if someone dies while waiting, they can't be liable. This is just as true when off duty.

Finally, and can't stress this enough, in your specific situation, there is a reason why a lifeguard is sitting at a pool (And let me tell you, it is certainly not because I liked the shrill sound of a whistle followed by a shout of "WALK!" directed at a 10 year old for the umpteenth time in an hour while I have a bright read foam tube wrapped around my waist during a heat wave! No I'm not bitter!). It's their job to be alert and attentive and trained to prevent drownings in the water. In fact, when I was doing it, I was instructed by my boss not to allow anyone who just walked up to help with CPR... but I could draft people to assist in other duties such as give a specific instruction to someone to call 911 (always looked for the parent of the kid first, as not only were they best equipped to explain any medical concerns to the operator, but also because the last thing I needed in that moment is a parent in histarics cause his/her baby isn't alert) as well as assisting in pulling the person onto the side of the pool so I could properly render aid (it was a two man job and I was more often than not the only guard on duty... talking a bystander through this part is pretty easy).

Edit: Bit of a nitpick here but Québec and Louisiana are both hybrid civil and common law jurisdictions, and while it gets weird at times, they are both sufficently common law enough that it doesn't matter here. And a quick point of interest, in the Americas, Québec along with Vermont, Misouri, and Rhode Island are the only four districts where you cannot flat out refuse to give aide in an emergency. Out right refusing aid when not on any duty to do so is legal in 46 states and all remaining Provinces in Canada (I don't know how many there are. And barely know their names. I just call them "The Weird one on the East Coast, The French One where they shove all the rude Canadians, The One with Bigfoot, The one that has a Jurassic Era Dinosaur named for it, The snowy one that I'm pretty sure is just a territory, and Toronto).

  • "properly rendered CPR will hurt when the victim wakes up" is something we don't see on TV and movies. Soft-tissue damage can be extremely painful ("don't worry, it only hurts when I breathe"), and takes months to heal. If one is healthy and fit, CPR is obviously worth the bother. But for someone that is already near end-of-life, the best it can do is to provide a short reprieve during which one will have to live in agony. That's why so many people, especially in the medical profession, sign DNR orders when they are hospitalized late in life. Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 14:34
  • "The Weird one …". You know more than most non-Canadians. We use the same six divisions here: the Atlantic Provinces, Québec, B.C., the Prairies, the Arctic, and Ontario. (There's probably a better name for Ontario, but I live there, so wouldn't hear it so often.) And for the record, there are 10 provinces and 3 territories. Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 14:39
  • @RayButterworth: It's actually impressive given that not only am I a Non-Canadian, I'm part Florida-Man (on my mother's side) and thus "Land That is Too far north for normal humans" is anything North of the Mason-Dixon Line (aka the MD-PA border... aka about 40 minutes North of D.C.).
    – hszmv
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 14:55

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