The law is that a person who causes the death of another by an illegal and dangerous act or by criminal negligence is guilty of manslaughter.
On 9 February 2007, David Hay died in Belmore, Sydney after taking methadone supplied to him by a woman called Natalie Burns. She or her husband or both may have helped him inject. A few hours before, Mr Hay had taken olanzapine and cannabis. Methadone is very dangerous when taken with other drugs. Mr Hay showed signs of an adverse reaction to the methadone shortly after taking it and Mrs Burns, rather than helping him in any way, told her husband to throw him out of her flat. Her husband told Mr Hay that it was time to go. Mr Hay, although not at all well, got up and left. He was found dead in a nearby toilet block the next day.
Mrs Burns was charged with, and stood her trial for manslaughter in the District Court. She was convicted. She appealed. The NSW Court of Criminal Appeal upheld her conviction. Right result? Wrong. In September last year, the High Court quashed the conviction. The Court found that the act of supplying the methadone, whilst illegal, was not dangerous. The risk of injury arose when the drug was consumed. The cause of death was the consumption of the drug not the supply. Further, the Court said that a failure to help where help would have saved the life of another can be manslaughter but only within confined categories requiring particular kinds of relationship. The relationship of drug dealer and customer is not one of those relationships.
Mrs Burns walked free although His Honour Justice Heydon, in the minority on the point, said that she should be sent for a new trial to determine whether she helped Mr Hay inject, which, in His Honour’s opinion, might constitute the dangerous act causing death.
What a piece of work is the needle? Drug addiction rendered Mrs Burns’ soul as dead as Hamlet’s father and her heart as empty as a scarecrow’s pockets.
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