HALCO news Autumn/Winter 2016, Released Thu 15/12/2016

Scales of JusticeOn December 1, 2016, World AIDS Day, the government of Canada recognized the over-criminalization of HIV non-disclosure and committed to working with the community to effect change. The government’s press release can be found at http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=1163979

For more information, including a joint statement from HALCO and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, please visit our website:www.halco.org/2016/news/federal-government-recognizes-over-criminalization-of-people-with-hiv

While there remains no cure for HIV, currently available medications are effective at keeping HIV in check. People living with HIV who have access to health care and medications have more or less the same life expectancy as those who are HIV-negative. Knowledge of prevention strategies is also better than it has ever been and it is much harder to transmit HIV than generally supposed. For example, the transmission risk is negligible if not zero if a condom is used properly or if a person living with HIV is being successfully treated with antiretroviral medications.

While this new reality must not be ignored, many people, including in Ontario, face significant institutional, social and economic barriers to accessing health care and life-saving medications. Moreover, social attitudes have not nearly kept pace with science. HIV-related stigma and accompanying discrimination remain pervasive. It is shameful that, based on a 2012 Canada-wide study,

  • 15% of Canadians feel afraid of people with HIV,
  • 24% feel uncomfortable wearing a sweater once worn by a person living with HIV, and
  • 22% feel uncomfortable shopping at a small neighbourhood grocery store owned by someone living with HIV.

Such attitudes influence action, public policy, and law. Canada’s unjust criminalization of people living with HIV is an example. People are facing charges of aggravated sexual assault, which is devised for the most horrific of forced sex acts, even in circumstances where:sexual behaviour is consensual there is negligible to no risk of HIV transmission, there is no intention to transmit HIV, and HIV transmission does not occur.

For many years, people living with HIV, community organizations, and legal and scientific experts have been calling for an overhaul of the current use of the criminal law in relation to HIV.

We commend the federal government for recognizing this issue.

The Ontario Provincial Ministerial Roundtable on Criminal Law and HIV met on December 5, 2016. Ryan Peck, HALCO executive director/lawyer, attended the meeting as part of the Ontario Working Group on Criminal Law and HIV Exposure (CLHE http://clhe.ca). The federal government statement was discussed. While we were disappointed that Yasir Naqvi, Ontario’s Attorney General, was unwilling to issue a similar statement, we welcomed his assurance that he looks forward to learning more about the federal government’s approach and is open to engaging in a meaningful dialogue with the CLHE. We also welcome the comments of Tracy MacCharles, Ontario Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues, that she too is open to working with the federal government and that the issue will be discussed at the Premier’s Roundtable on Violence Against Women.

We reiterate our long-standing call for the provincial government to immediately develop guidelines for Crown prosecutors handling allegations of HIV non-disclosure. The guidelines must ensure that such prosecutions are informed by a complete, accurate understanding of current medical and scientific research about HIV; and, are compatible with broader scientific, medical, public health, and community efforts to prevent the spread of HIV and to provide care, treatment and support to people living with HIV.

 

HALCO provides free legal advice for people living with HIV in Ontario, please contact HALCO with any questions.