Cases in three provinces could shape the way HIV non-disclosure is treated by the courts in this country.
In Vancouver, an HIV-positive man awaits a verdict after a lengthy trial. He and his boyfriend had unprotected sex very rarely — possibly just once — and the poz partner was always the bottom. The trial judge has ordered a publication ban on both men’s names.
In Hamilton, a poz guy had charges against him stayed because the complainant and accused only engaged in oral sex.
And in Edmonton, a straight man in his 50s is facing an assault charge for HIV non-disclosure, but police — who have a history of splashing names and photos around in the media — are refusing to release his name.
Although there is no HIV law on the books, Canadian police have, since the mid-’90s, been charging people with offences — ranging from assault to murder — for failing to disclose their health status before having unprotected sex. HIV activists have long said that transmission should be a public health matter, not a criminal one.
In Vancouver, Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon was, as Xtra goes to press, expected to render a verdict on May 7. But she has already hinted that the case could be appealed on constitutional grounds.
The defendant is represented by BC Civil Liberties Association lawyer Jason Gratl. Gratl called Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, to the stand to testify about the adverse effects of HIV criminalization.
At the trial, Fenlon said Elliott raised important policy issues that an intervener might put before the appeal courts or the Supreme Court of Canada, but that his testimony was not relevant to the issue before her.
The court, consequently, did not consider Elliott’s testimony, but if the accused is convicted, they may end up making their case in appeals.
Elliott testified to the challenges of requiring disclosure in all circumstances, saying that approximately one quarter of all people in Canada infected with HIV don’t know they have it.
“I think people recognize challenges of HIV disclosure, including stigma and negative consequences that can very easily flow from their HIV status,” Elliott told the court. “Rather than expect people to overcome those barriers in every circumstance and impose a criminal penalty when they don’t, the emphasis should be on personal responsibility and risk reduction, a sensible prudent strategy in the ability of all people.”
He told the court that the stigma associated with HIV could be a disincentive to disclosure.
“People, quite legitimately, have concerns over employment, housing, loss of personal and other social rela-tionships, ostracism in community and denial of service by service providers,” Elliott testified. “Although we only have limited systemic research on HIV stigma, we certainly do have enough to document that there is still a pervasive stigma associated with HIV.”
He stressed the need for clarity in the law to better define what sexual activities between HIV-discordant couples constitute “significant risk” of serious bodily harm as set out in the 1998 Supreme Court of Canada case R v Cuerrier.
In the Vancouver case, the issue of what constitutes significant risk is paramount, because the defence is arguing that the risk of HIV transmission was as low as 1 in 2,500. In none of the three cases did transmission occur.
Dr Richard Mathias told the court he believes HIV transmission rates from anal intercourse are comparable to those from vaginal intercourse. He explained that a penetrative partner in anal sex is at risk of contracting HIV through anal fluid, which could travel up the urethra. He mentioned that in the case of uncircumcised men, the risk is higher as the fluids can infect the insertive partner through the tissue beneath the foreskin.
Crown counsel Brendan McCabe asked Mathias if he is aware of any incidents in the gay community of the virus going from an HIV-positive bottom partner to a negative top.
“No,” said Mathias, who has worked in public health for 35 years and conducted research on HIV and AIDS in the early days of the disease. He explained that the risk in the case of the accused would be 4 in 10,000 per act, but that number would multiply with each encounter.
McCabe suggested that if the accused and complainant had had five unprotected encounters, then the risk would be 20 in 10,000.
Mathias said the risk is comparable to sex between an HIV-negative bottom and an HIV-positive top when a condom is used.
The definition of “significant risk” was also at the heart of the Hamilton case, where the prosecution stayed an aggravated sexual assault charge in April. A gay man was charged in February 2009 after an ex-partner alleged they had oral sex without his disclosing that he had HIV. The charges were based on the accused’s performing oral sex, rather than receiving it.
The ex-partner has since been tested and is HIV-negative.
Elliott said in a statement:
“There was never any solid basis for significant risk of transmission. It’s a misguided overreaction to lay and pursue some of the most serious charges in the Criminal Code when no harm has occurred and the risk of HIV transmission was miniscule at most.”
In the Hamilton case, the name of the man who was accused is public, but, at his request, Xtra chooses not report it. In the Edmonton case, police declined to release the accused’s name. And in Vancouver, the judge ordered a publication ban on the accused’s identity.
In all three cases, the complainant’s identity cannot be disclosed by law, akin to the way the identities of rape victims are protected.
Police across the country often disclose the names of people accused of sexual assault for HIV-nondisclosure, which, among other things, outs them as HIV-positive.
The Edmonton case is unusual because, from the outset, the name of the accused has been kept under wraps.
The charge follows a March 31 police complaint by a woman claiming she slept with an Edmonton man who failed to disclose that he has HIV.
An RCMP spokesperson, Jodi Hei-denger, says the move has nothing to do with public disclosure of the health status of the accused, and everything to do with protecting the identity of the alleged victim.
“Releasing any details would without a doubt identify the victim. We are not releasing the name of the accused strictly to protect the identity of the victim,” says Heidenger.
Which could mean that the Vancouver case, where at trial the accused’s name is protected, could be more precedent-setting. The move, however, may have come too late, since the publication ban came only after the name had been bandied about in media reports and police press releases.
The Hamilton case, because it never went to trial, will likely have the least impact on jurisprudence.
The Vancouver case, with the spectre of a Supreme Court challenge hanging in the air, could be one of the most important in a decade.