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In this landmark criminal law case, the distinction between indifference to, and perception of risk, are carefully weighed, in order to appreciate that when compared for their relevance to recklessness, the outcome remains the same, despite differing routes to dire consequences.
In 1972, an eccentric sibling moved into the home of her older disabled brother after a falling out with her sister. The terms of the living arrangement was that of a landlord and tenant, in so much that rent was paid and each were free to live their lives independently of one another. While the brother lived with his mistress and housekeeper along with his mentally challenged son, the sister occupied the front room of the home and maintained a high degree of privacy, despite openly suffering from anorexia nervosa (although undiagnosed at the time); a condition that precluded regular meals in favour of a low bodyweight, that in many instances was known to result in premature death, or at best, extreme immobility.
After a period of almost nearly three years, the sister’s health deteriorated to a point that she became permanently bedridden and unable to clean or feed herself. Despite repeated express concerns from the mistress to the brother regards his sister’s condition, there were no attempts made by the either party to extend their efforts in seeking medical help beyond that of unsuccessfully trying to locate her doctor. When matters continued with no real intervention, the now seriously ill woman was eventually found dead in her bed, amidst evidence that no care had been taken to tend to her toiletry needs or physical health requirements, prior to her death.
When reported to the police, the two defendants were summoned and convicted of manslaughter upon grounds of a breach of duty of care through recklessness, whereupon the two parties appealed under the presumption of diminished responsibility. When considered under appeal, the judges found that irrespective of whether the couple claimed to have taken limited steps to get the deceased help, there was insufficient evidence to avoid the conviction of recklessness, as (i) there was adequate foresight of the risk posed to the dying woman while under the assumed care of her brother and mistress, and (ii) that the conduct taken to redress such a risk, was made with little regard to the seriousness of her condition.
Ultimately, and when taken in context, the court felt that it mattered not which route had been taken, only that the destination resulted in her death; and that both parties had been made aware of possible options, yet continued to ignore the duty bestowed upon those assigned the care of a vulnerable person, in particular a close relative with a history of self-neglect and malnutrition.
“Whether Fanny was a lodger or not she was a blood relation of the appellant Stone; she was occupying a room in his house; the appellant Dobinson had undertaken the duty of trying to wash her, of taking such food to her as she required.”
“They tried to get a doctor; the tried to discover the previous doctor. The appellant Dobinson helped with the washing and the provision of food.”
“The defendant must be proved to have been indifferent to an obvious risk of injury to health, or actually to have foreseen the risk but to have determined nevertheless to run it.”
“It is clear that a sentence of immediate imprisonment was unavoidable, if of nothing else at least to mark the public disapproval of such behaviour.”