In today’s globalised world, where travelling and moving abroad has become increasingly commonplace, we are often only too keen to learn of our rights as citizens in other countries and the services available to us on our travels. However, rarely do we think of researching what our dutiesare when residing overseas. With extensive information available to us for over 225 countries from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as a British Citizen abroad it’s equally important we educate ourselves on local customs and laws that could have a huge importance and severe ramifications when overseas. As I learnt only too well on my Year Abroad…

It’s crucial to always look carefully into the country-specific advice and support before you travel, and to know where the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission is based in case you are in need of assistance. This advice is particularly pertinent to me and my experiences during my Year Abroad, spent in the South of France teaching English as a Language Assistant. A fellow assistant and I found ourselves witness to what we later discovered to be a murder investigation. This was a very traumatic experience and we were in fact heavily involved in a major police investigation as a result. This meant being interviewed in French, giving witness statements as well as being involved in the identifying process of the offender. This was not the kind of ‘year abroad tale’ I expected to be returning with, but, nevertheless, one from which we can all learn a very important lesson.

One evening, after attending a theatre production, we walked past a dark side street to hear a loud thump on the ground. We turned to see a man had been pushed from a three-storey high window. We heard lots of shouting and screaming and later learnt that it was a woman who had pushed this man, whilst accusing him of stealing from her. This all took place very rapidly and they were conversing in a vulgar, explicit French too which made the situation even more unnerving. My friend insisted that we had to go and help the man, but I wasn’t sure about putting ourselves at possible risk as we weren’t fully aware of the situation. Despite my reluctance, my friend maintained we couldn’t leave the man struggling and clearly severely injured, so we went to help. We immediately rang the ambulance and the police whilst trying to reassure the victim. However, this greatly angered the woman in the window. She soon came down from her flat accompanied by what appeared to be her two sons and several intimidating large dogs in an attempt to get rid of us. My friend and I were not hurt nor assaulted; however, another passer-by who assisted us wasn’t quite so lucky and ended up having to go to hospital for her injuries caused by this violent woman. It wasn’t long before the police and ambulance arrived but, sadly, following an investigation and also several releases of the story in the local press, we learnt that the man (a father of four) did in fact later die after his fall and several weeks in a coma.

This was evidently a very distressing experience yet an important one to share. In France, under Article 223-6 of the French Penal Code (Chapter III, Section 3) anyone who fails to render assistance to a person in danger will be held accountable before French Courts (civil and criminal liability). Although this is not a law in the UK, the penalty for this offence in criminal courts is imprisonment and a rather extortionate fine. This is a rather obscure French law that we were in fact unaware of, despite having lived in the country for eight months. If we had not stopped to assist this man, or ring for help, we would have been liable ourselves. As an eye-witness in France, you have a duty to assist those in need and this is a legal requirement. A real-life example of this law in practice can be seen with the photographers at the scene of Princess Diana’s death in Paris who were investigated for not abiding with the French law of “non-assistance à personne in danger” (deliberately not assisting a person in danger).  The French Penal code imbues all citizens with a general duty to assist others in danger whereas English criminal law does not impose such a duty.

This is just one key example of a law that could be of huge importance when travelling. Although myself and my friend were not in fact aware of this law at the time, since then it has been brought to our attention and could have had huge ramifications for us as eye-witnesses. It was so important to read up on the guidance for living in France  before we travelled and information on all such laws and customs is available to us online. In reflection, we should have investigated further topics such as crime abroad and how best to prepare for every eventuality.

Whenever you go abroad, it’s imperative to ensure you’re fully educated regardless of where you’re travelling. Laws and customs vary in every country and it’s important that we respect these differences. The British Embassy are there to support you when you’re overseas and help you when you’re in need of urgent assistance, but this should only be in emergencies.

An important message for us all: it’s your duty to know your duties (!) before you travel.