A correspondent has:
… been speaking with some paramedics who work for the Queensland Ambulance Service and they explained that they have the power under the QLD Ambulance Act to instruct a member of the public to do whatever they deem necessary in order to provide assistance to them during an emergency. Examples that have been cited range from the benign, such as asking a citizen to help carry equipment, to using a citizens cell phone, or even ordering a member of the public to drive the ambulance to the hospital in an emergency. I’ve scanned through the Act, but don’t see anything that specifically says this. I’ve asked a few of the paramedics for the section that states this, and one has said that it’s implied under the Doctrine of Necessity. However, that isn’t my understanding of that principle. I’m curious if you see any language pertaining to this and what your impression of this is.
Specifically, I have three questions arising from these discussions. To what extent are paramedics legally authorised to ‘order’ members of the general public to assist them in an emergency? What rights do members of the public have to refuse such an offer? And, what legal repercussions might a member of the public expose themselves to if they did refuse such an order?
The power to request assistance
There relevant provision is the Ambulance Service Act 1991 (Qld) s 38. That section sets out the powers of ‘authorised officers’. An ‘authorised officer’ is an officer authorised by the Commissioner. A person may be personally authorised or the authority may be given to all ambulance officers of a particular ‘class’ (eg officers with particular qualifications or employment level). An authorised officer:
(1) … may take any reasonable measures—
(a) to protect persons from any danger or potential danger associated with an emergency situation; and
(b) to protect persons trapped in a vehicle, receptacle, vessel or otherwise endangered; and
(c) to protect themselves or other officers or persons from danger, potential danger or assault from other persons.
(2) Without limiting the measures that may be taken for a purpose specified in subsection (1)(a) or (b), an authorised officer may, for that purpose—
(a) enter any premises, vehicle or vessel; and
(b) open any receptacle, using such force as is reasonably necessary; and
(c) bring any apparatus or equipment onto premises; and
(d) remove from or otherwise deal with, any article or material in the area; and
(e) destroy (wholly or partially) or damage any premises, vehicle, vessel or receptacle; and
(f) cause the gas or electricity supply or motor or any other source of energy to any premises, vehicle, vessel or receptacle to be shut off or disconnected; and
(g) request any person to take all reasonable measures to assist the authorised officer; and
(h) administer such basic life support and advanced life support procedures as are consistent with the training and qualifications of the authorised officer.
(3) Without limiting the measures that may be taken for a purpose specified in subsection (1)(c), an authorised officer may, for that purpose, require any person not to enter into or remain within a specified area around the site of the danger to a patient.
Readers will see that the relevant provision for this discussion is s 38(2)(g). The section doesn’t say that the officer may compel a person to provide assistance, only that the officer my ‘request’ assistance. Of course anyone can request assistance, legal authority is not required. So what is the point of s s 38(2)(g)? The section has to be read along with s 39, which says:
(1) The State is to indemnify every service officer against all actions, proceedings and claims in relation to—
(a) acts done, or omitted to be done, by the officer under section 38; or
(b) acts done, or omitted to be done, by the officer in good faith for the purposes of section 38.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), a service officer includes a person required under section 38(2)(g) to assist an authorised officer.
Taken together ss 38(2)(g) and 39 confirm that if a person is assisting a paramedic, the state, and not the person, is liable to deal with any claim or allegation of negligence arising out of the treatment. It provides legal protection to the person who agrees to help the paramedic.
To return to the question posed by my correspondent, the section does not give authority to ‘instruct a member of the public to do whatever they deem necessary’ or extend to ‘ordering a member of the public’ to do anything. A paramedic may ask for help, and if a person agrees to help that person enjoys the same liability protection offered to the ambulance officers. Nothing more.
What legal repercussions might a member of the public expose themselves to if they did refuse such a request?
Basically, none. There is no obligation to accede to a request for assistance.
It is an offence to ‘wilfully obstruct or hinder any person acting under the authority of this [Ambulance Services] Act (s 46)’. The offence of ‘wilfully obstruct or hinder’ a Queensland paramedic does not depend on s 38(2)(g). A person can obstruct an officer regardless of whether the officer requests them to do anything or to stop doing anything.
The Oxford dictionary (online) defines obstruct as ‘Block (an opening, path, road, etc.); be or get in the way of; Prevent or hinder (movement or someone or something in motion); Deliberately make (something) difficult.’ Case law on similar phrases says that ‘obstruct or hinder’ requires action by the accused which makes it more difficult for the person to perform their duties (Evans v Powell  NSWSC 1384; Hayward-Jackson v Mason-Walshaw  WASC 107; Semaan v Poidevin 2013] NSWSC 226; Hinchcliffe v Sheldon  3 All ER 406).
In Semaan v Poidevin  NSWSC 226, the court had to consider whether the defendant was guilty of hindering police when he refused to hand over his mobile phone which police wanted for fear that he was going to call others to come and cause a breach of the peace. We don’t need to consider the details of that case, but in coming to his conclusion that the accused was not guilty of the offence charged, Rothman J considered this hypothetical
Assume a police officer stops the driver of a car for a random breath test. Assume that the driver has not been drinking and does not register any, or any prohibited, content of alcohol on the device utilised. At that point in time the officer, who is in uniform, observes an occurrence a distance away that is either a breach of the peace or that would give rise to a breach of the peace. The officer directs the owner of the vehicle to alight from the car, and to give the officer the keys, so that the officer can seize the car and use it temporarily in order to go to the location of the breach of the peace and to prevent it.
In those circumstances, the officer is taking a step that the officer reasonably believes is to prevent a breach of the peace … Is the owner of the vehicle hindering a police officer in the execution of duty if the owner refuses to allow the police officer to take the car and to drive it? …
In my view, it is not resisting a police officer in the execution of duty to assert a right to possess one’s own property, if that property is not to be used directly in the breach of peace or criminal conduct, other than in circumstances where the person is under arrest.
In Bombala Council v Smith  NSWSC 382 the defendant refused to remove stock from his paddock to allow an authorised officer to spray noxious weeds on the property. Master Malpass held that in the circumstances anticipated by the Act, ‘The failure to remove stock in the circumstances may be seen as impeding or hampering.’
Can refusal of a request, such as that suggested by my correspondent constitute an obstruction or hindrance. Generally speaking, I would answer that ‘no’. The request can’t convert an innocent act into a guilty one. An example may help. Assume a paramedic is treating a patient and would be assisted if someone were to hold the drip. A person who is standing a reasonable distance from the scene, watching but doing nothing is not obstructing or hindering the paramedic. If the paramedic then asks that person to help and they refuse, their inaction that was not an obstruction or hindrance isn’t now making the paramedics job harder, it just isn’t making it easier.
Now consider a request to use ‘a citizens cell phone, or even ordering a member of the public to drive the ambulance to the hospital in an emergency’. To require the person to hand over their phone is exactly the hypothetical that Rothman J considered in Semaan v Poidevin. He said ‘In my view, it is not resisting a police officer in the execution of duty to assert a right to possess one’s own property…’ and equally how can it be an obstruction or hindrance to refuse to hand it over to a paramedic. If there’s no duty to rescue then a person is under no duty to go to the aid of the patient and they’re under no duty to go to the aid of the paramedic (and s 38(2) doesn’t impose such a duty).
The situation must be even clearer where the ‘command’ is to ‘drive the ambulance to the hospital in an emergency’ because that represents a deprivation of liberty. Whatever interest we have in our private property we have even greater interest in being at liberty to move about as we please. To compel a person, to make it clear that they are no longer free to go about their business is in effect to arrest the person. Ambulance officers have no such authority. Take my example of the person watching the event and who is asked to assist but who says ‘no I’ve got to go’ and who then walks off. The exercise of their right to freedom of movement when there is no legal authority for anyone to detain them, can’t be a hindrance or obstruction.
I can imagine one circumstances where there might be, and that is drawing a parallel with Bombala Council v Smith. Imagine paramedics attend in response to a triple zero call and find the door locked. They ask the key holder to assist them by unlocking the door. The key holder refuses. The paramedics explain that they need to access the patient and they are being delayed and if the keyholder doesn’t open the door, no doubt the fire brigade will happily remove it from the door frame. That sort of failure to act, where it is intended to make the paramedics job harder, could I think be a wilful obstruction or hindrance but again that doesn’t depend on s 38(2). The obligation to assist by unlocking the door, if it exists, is because it is an offence to wilfully obstruct or hinder a paramedic, not because he or she asked.
A request or direction in this context is relevant as it may make it clear to a person that what they are doing is making the paramedics job harder. Given the offence requires a ‘wilful’ obstruction a person who does not realise that they are getting in the way would not be guilty of the offence. But if they are told they are getting in the way and are asked to stop, or leave, or move their car, or unlock the door, then that may be evidence that they are not ‘wifully’ obstructing or hindering the paramedic. But that direction or request does not depend on s 38(2)(g).
A power to compel would not be justified by necessity. Necessity, when it applies, may give rise to a defence if a paramedic commits a tort but it doesn’t impose an obligation upon anyone else to assist. And asking, or even demanding, that someone provide assistance isn’t a tort, but equally the person isn’t required to provide that assistance. Necessity, or self-defence, may be a doctrine that could be relied upon if a paramedic physically removed a person who was getting in the way of the provision of care but that would not extend to requiring them to drive the ambulance. It might be reasonable and proportionate response to a risk to physically remove or restrain a person who is threatening the paramedic’s or patient’s safety but it would be quite another to forcibly detain a person and require them to drive an ambulance. As noted above, there is no power of arrest and an arrest occurs when a person is led to believe they are no longer free to go about their business (Eburn and Hayes Criminal Law and Procedure in NSW, 5th ed, 2016, Chapter 11). Necessity could not justify that sort of compulsion.
I was asked three questions. In my view the answers are:
To what extent are paramedics legally authorised to ‘order’ members of the general public to assist them in an emergency?
Queensland paramedics are not allowed to order members of the general public to assist them in an emergency. They are authorised to ‘request’ assistance.
What rights do members of the public have to refuse such an order?
There is no obligation to comply with the request for assistance. If a person does comply with that request, they are to be indemnified by the state of Queensland should any legal claims arise from their assistance.
And, what legal repercussions might a member of the public expose themselves to if they did refuse such an order?
In some circumstances, refusing to do what a person is asked to do could, conceivably, constitute the offence of ‘wilfully obstructing or hindering’ a paramedic, but in my view mere failure to refuse a request for assistance would not usually meet that test. Where a person is hindering or obstructing a paramedic and they don’t stop when asked to do so, may be evidence that their actions are ‘wilful’. But if they are not obstructing or hindering a paramedic, refusing a request to assist won’t convert a legal action into an illegal one.