Canada: Advocates recommend amending the criminal code to limit the overcriminalisation of non-disclosure and the inconsistency of provincial prosecutorial policies

Criminal Code changes needed to curb HIV non-disclosure prosecutions, experts say

The chair of the federal government’s justice committee is hoping input from various stakeholders will lead to Criminal Code changes limiting prosecutions of HIV non-disclosure across Canada.

On April 9, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights began inviting medical professionals, advocates and those living with the immunodeficiency virus to submit briefs on how to deal with the overcriminalization of non-disclosure and a “patchwork” of prosecutorial policy among the provinces.

The committee’s study comes almost five months after Canada’s Department of Justice directed its Crowns to limit their prosecutions of HIV non-disclosure in light of evolving science around risk of transmission.

But the Dec. 1 directive applies only to Crowns in Canada’s territories. Provincial prosecutors, on the other hand, follow their own set of prosecutorial policies.

Soon after this, Ontario directed its Crowns to limit non-disclosure prosecutions. And on April 16, British Columbia brought forth a revamped policy.

Most other provinces lack directives.

Defence lawyers and advocates have long been said that criminal law dealing with non-disclosure has lagged scientific findings that the risk of transmission can be quite low, depending on individual circumstances and sexual practices.

The committee will be hearing from stakeholders on the adequacy of the federal directive, how the justice system can work with the health sector to better understand the science of transmission and how to attain a uniform policy across the land.

As of April 17, the committee had heard from the Ontario AIDS Network and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, as well as other organizations and several experts.

All submissions are due April 30 and a report will go before Parliament sometime in May, according to the committee’s chairman, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather.

“We’re looking at how do you create a system that can apply across the country, and, for me, that would only be through adjustments to the Criminal Code itself,” Housefather told The Lawyer’s Daily.“Now, we could come out with recommendations, theoretically, to the minister of justice to meet with his provincial and territorial counterparts to try to agree on a directive that would be applied in every province and territory. But, from what I understand right now, the best approach would be amendments to the Criminal Code.”

Housefather spoke of different policies currently in existence.

“Right now, we only have a federal directive that applies to very few Canadians,” said Housefather. “We have an Ontario directive that is slightly different from the federal directive. There is a directive in B.C. that was quietly put forward. And then most [other] provinces have no such directive. So, people are being prosecuted differently depending on the province or territory that they live in right now.”

Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network executive director Richard Elliott said the consultations will drive home the need for consistency.

“It should make clear that, in so far as it goes, the [federal] directive … issued in December, is OK,” said Elliott. “In our view — and [in] the view of other advocates with whom we work across the country on this — it doesn’t go far enough, but it is a step forward. What I think it should also make clear is even if the directive at the federal level went as far as it should go, and even if every provincial [attorney general] were to adopt an equally satisfactory directive applicable in their jurisdiction … we would still need an additional part of the solution here, which … is to amend the Criminal Code.”

Elliott noted differences in the federal, Ontario and B.C. directives and said uniform, coast-to-coast policy would “sweep away a patchwork of different policies in different jurisdictions.”

None of the policies is quite where it should be when it comes to limiting criminalization, said Elliott, who, like many, is calling for sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault charges to be taken off the table as charges for HIV non-disclosure.

Criminal charges, he said, should be limited to intentional transmission.

Criminal lawyer Cynthia Fromstein has been approached by people “frightened [and] concerned about their legal jeopardy and wanting to know what is and is not lawful behaviour.”

“These are people who have no intention of harming others by their actions,” said Fromstein, a sole practitioner in Toronto. “That is one reason it is truly necessary for there to be consistency across the country in policy and application of the criminal law.”

Like Elliott, Fromstein hopes the consultations will kick-start change.

“Amending the Criminal Code is going to be complex,” she said. “I think there is wide support for taking any kind of prosecution of non-disclosure out of the sex assault provisions. I think there is broad agreement [this] needs to be done. But then there are real questions: Should there be a specific law for HIV transmissions? Should there be a specific law for ‘causing a person to be infected with a serious illness,’ which is not necessarily [classified as] HIV? There are a lot of questions that have to be fine-tuned.”