There have been more than 230 cases related to the criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure before sex in Canada since the first reported case in 1989. There have also been cases relating to spitting and biting, and cases where HIV has been considered an aggravating factor in sexual assault, although the number of such cases is not known. A small number of prosecutions have also been undertaken based on perceived risk of transmission of hepatitis B, hepatitis C and herpes.
Canada has one of the highest number of reported HIV cases in the world despite there being no HIV-specific law. Most cases have been prosecuted under (aggravated) sexual assault laws although charges of common nuisance, criminal negligence causing bodily harm, administration of a noxious substance, attempted murder and even murder have occasionally been used. Public health law can also be used against people living with HIV who do not disclose their status and/or do not use precautions to prevent HIV, with these orders enforceable through courts.
Sexual assault laws have been routinely used since 1998 when the Supreme Court ruled that non-disclosure of HIV-positive status prior to sex may amount to fraud vitiating consent to sex in some circumstances (i.e. where there is a realistic possibility of transmission and the sexual partner would not have consented to sex had they been informed about their partner’s HIV positive status).
People living with HIV have been charged when they had no intent to harm their partner and HIV was not transmitted. In some cases, people have been charged and imprisoned for acts with zero to negligible risk of transmission including sex with an undetectable viral load, oral sex or sex with a condom.
In 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada established a legal duty to disclose HIV-positive status before sex that poses a “significant risk of serious bodily harm”. In 2012, the Supreme Court ‘clarified’ that mandatory disclosure applies when sex poses a “realistic possibility of transmission of HIV” (see decisions here and here). According to that decision, there is no duty to disclose before sex if a condom is used and the HIV positive partner has a “low” viral load (under 1500 copies per ml of blood). The question of whether a person might be prosecuted for not disclosing their status in other circumstances is still evolving and may vary from one province to another, depending on court decisions/precedents in different provinces and territories; on directives and guidelines for prosecutors where they exist; and on interpretation of what a “realistic possibility” of HIV transmission may mean.
In May 2020, the British Colombia Court of Appeal made a decision which may prove important in a case that does not involve HIV. It ordered a new trial of a man previously acquitted of sexual assault after he had sex without a condom – finding sex without a condom is a fundamentally different activity from sex with a condom.
Recently, there have been some positive changes as a result of tenacious efforts by community advocates, scientists, lawyers and academics, to combat unjust criminalisation. The Canadian Coalition to Reform HIV Criminalization (CCRHC), created in 2016, released its Community Consensus Statement (2017) calling for Criminal Code reforms and the development of sound prosecutorial guidelines across the country. The statement was endorsed by more than 170 community organisations.
In December 2018, the Federal Government instructed its lawyers to stop prosecuting people who have a suppressed viral load (i.e. under 200 copies/ml) and to “generally” not prosecute people who used a condom, took treatment as prescribed, or had only had oral sex, because she concluded that there is likely no realistic possibility of transmission in these circumstances. That directive only applies to Canada’s three territories and not to Canadian provinces where most people living with HIV live. For more information on the current state of the law and prosecutorial guidelines in Canada, visit the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s HIV criminalisation microsite.
In June 2019, the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights released a report on the Criminalization of HIV non-disclosure in Canada. The report recommends removing HIV non-disclosure from the reach of sexual assault law and limiting HIV criminalisation to reckless or intentional transmission of an infectious disease (including HIV) through the creation of a specific offence in the Criminal Code. While encouraging, community advocates retain a goal of limiting HIV criminalisation to cases of intentional transmission only (in keeping with UN recommendations). Moreover, community advocates disagree with the extension of the criminal law to other infections.
The report also recommends the implementation of prosecutorial directives (common across Canada) to end criminal prosecutions of HIV non-disclosure wherever HIV is not transmitted, and to ensure that the most recent scientific evidence regarding HIV and its modes of transmission is applied. The report states HIV non-disclosure should never be prosecuted if (1) the infected individual has an undetectable viral load (less than 200 copies per millilitre of blood); (2) condoms are used; (3) the infected individual’s partner is on PrEP or (4) the type of sexual act (such as oral sex) is one where there is a negligible risk of transmission.
More information is available on the following states
This microsite from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network provides a comprehensive and up-to-date overview and analysis of HIV-related criminalisation in Canada.
One of the world’s leading organisations tackling the legal and human rights issues related to HIV, and advocating at both the policy and community levels.