Sunday, 6 February 2011

In Defence Of The Police

Today the tragic story of Samantha Hancox has been reported in a few newspapers. Ms Hancox died at the age of 40 from dehydration and a skin infection. She suffered from terrible and crippling OCD, and was cared for by her elderly and infirm parents.

However, her death is not what caused the media flurry, but rather the fact that her parents were questioned for several hours after she passed away.

It is difficult for me to look at this case in greater detail, since reports are practically identical.

However, what I will say about this case is that once again, it seems that the media are misrepresenting what actually occured in a tragic case in order to suit their readers' desire for moral outrage. While it may seem, on the face of it, distasteful for the police to question Ms Hancox's parents after her death, I believe it was completely justified, and I'd like to explain why.

Ms Hancox's parents were questioned because her death was unexpected, and they were the last people to see her alive. This is standard protocol. Where this deviates from the norm is the fact that they were questioned under suspicion of gross negligence manslaughter. 

Gross negligence manslaughter occurs when a person a) assumes a duty of care for V, b) breaches that duty of care, c) the breach is so bad that it may be judged criminal and d) the breach causes the death of V [1].

This usually occurs in the sphere of professional duties (i.e. when a doctor assumes a duty of care to a patient), however, it may also occur if the accused person was a lay person who voluntarily assumed a duty of care for another (as Ms Hancox's parents did), and then subsequently neglected their duties, which resulted in the victim’s death.

Allow me to give a couple of well-known examples:

In the case of R v Instan [2], the defendant lived with her elderly aunt. In exchange for food and lodgings, she was expected to look after her aunt. In her last few days alive, the aunt was completely bedridden. The defendant had bought food and brought it to the house, but failed to give her aunt any. She also failed to summon a doctor to see to the woman. The aunt died from ‘exhaustion’ and gangrene. The defendant was found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter, as she had owed her aunt a duty of care, which she had breached. The breach had caused her aunt’s death and was “such that it should be judged criminal”.

In a similar, more recent, case, that of R v Stone and Dobinson [3], the defendants were convicted of the grossly negligent manslaughter of Mr. Stone’s sister, an elderly woman whom they had allowed to live with them and agreed to take care of. The victim was eccentric and anorexic, often locking herself in her room for prolonged periods of time. The female defendant, Miss Dobinson had made some small attempt to care for her, by way of washing her once or twice with a neighbour (who testified about the shocking state that the victim was in on these occasions), but they failed to ensure that she ate anything or to inform social services of her condition or to summon a doctor to visit her. The victim died as a result of bedsores caused by lying on dirty bed sheets for extended periods of time. Her decline was hastened by her emaciated state.

In the case of Ms Hancox, it is stated that she died as a result of dehydration and a skin infection. However much her parents may have tried to care for her, something obviously went wrong, and she was not given the correct help. Whether this is as a result of the inadequacy of social services, or because the correct help was not sought by her parents, I do not know. I must also point out that I do not doubt that her parents loved her and tried to care for her themselves in the best way they could.

All I can say is that I defend the police's decision to question her parents. Their desire to see that an immensely vulnerable woman's death was not preventable may be commended. The fact that they followed protocol in order to ensure that she was not the victim of a crime in what may seem like a cut and dry case ought be applauded, and not something to be used as a smear against the police by the right-wing press.

[1] R v Adomako [1995] 1 AC 171
[2] [1893] 1 QB 450
[3] [1977] 64 Cr. App. R 186


  1. Very balanced, thanks for posting this. With mental illness stories, I always wonder (perhaps unfairly) how easy it would have been for the papers to twist it into 'nutter daughter blah blah' - say, 'parents demand care for daughter too bothered about germs to get a job' or some such drivel. Hope I'm wrong though.

    In relation to a previous post, have you considered being a journalist?

  2. Fascinating post this.I love how you have drawn on beautifully distilled Case summaries to shed relevant light on the real issue here.This approach is an effective antidote to the chronic Tabloid distortion almost everywhere else on offer.More of the same please...