UK: Developing guidance for HIV prosecutions: an example of harm reduction?

I’m including an excerpt here – the conclusion, actually – of an excellent article by Yusef Azad of the National AIDS Trust, in the July issue of the HIV/AIDS Policy and Law Review, published by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, which describes the way the HIV sector managed to successfully intervene and manage the harm of criminal prosecutions in England & Wales for ‘reckless’ HIV transmission following an initial period of shock and panic.

By persuading the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consult with the community on the production of a policy statement, as well as legal guidance for prosecutors and caseworkers in this area of law, he argues that this was pragmatic ‘harm reduction’. Certainly, the process has resulted in a much higher burden of proof of transmission and guilt, and there have been no successful prosecutions since an African migrant living in Bournemouth pleaded guilty in January 2007.

Since then, three cases have been dismissed by a judge in pretrial hearings, including two gay cases (in Preston in April 2007 and Cardiff in May 2008) and one heterosexual case (in Manchester in October 2007). These prosecutions all failed because the men had the same informed solicitor who successfully argued that the CPS failed to provide uneqivocal proof that the defendant, and only the defendant, could have, in fact, infected the complainant(s). Although the CPS guidance was only published in March 2008, even the existence of draft versions was enough to persuade the judge in the earlier two cases.

The full article, ‘Developing guidance for HIV prosecutions: an example of harm reduction?’, can be found here.

Judging success depends a lot on one’s initial expectations. The CPS were not in a position to end prosecutions for reckless transmission or disagree with the interpretation of the OAPA 1861 as set out by the Court of Appeal.

What they could do — and what they did do — was consider in greater depth, and on the basis of detailed evidence, what is required to prove responsibility for infection, knowledge, recklessness and appropriate use of safeguards. An informed understanding of these elements has, even in the context of current criminal law, resulted in fewer and fairer prosecutions.

As the CPS says in its Policy Statement, “[O]btaining sufficient evidence to prove the intentional or reckless sexual transmission of infection will be difficult … accordingly it is unlikely that there will be many prosecutions.” Therefore, we should consider this to be a successful example of policy intervention as harm reduction.

It was not without its risks. Success was due to a number of factors, not least of which was a CPS that was already committed to taking seriously the concerns and experiences of affected communities when considering prosecutions in socially sensitive areas of law.

Some jurisdictions will not have such an enlightened prosecution service, and so the HIV sector will need to start further back in terms of engaging with the authorities. But it may be possible, even given the different legal contexts of different countries, to use the CPS Guidance to help bring about improvements in practice elsewhere.

The process was helped immensely by the commitment from an extraordinarily wide range of partners within the HIV sector, encompassing NGOs, academics, clinicians, virologists and, above all, people living with HIV.

Although harm may be reduced, it has not been ended — prosecutions for reckless HIV transmission remain and will continue. There is an urgent need to restate the ethical and policy case against such prosecutions and to consider freshly how and when we might engage with political decisionmakers on this issue.