The Supreme Court ruling is one of the strictest in a recent spate of measures addressing deceptive condom use, as courts try to define consent.
TORONTO — It is a crime to renege on a promise to wear a condom during sex without a partner’s knowledge or consent, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled this week.
The decision sends a British Columbia man back to trial for sexual assault, and sets legal precedent in Canada, further clarifying the law governing sexual consent in a country that has been raising the bar for it for decades.
“In no other jurisdiction in the world is it as clear that when someone has agreed to sex with a condom, and removed it without their consent, this constitutes sexual assault or rape,” said Lise Gotell, professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Alberta, and an expert on sexual consent and Canadian law.
“The court says very clearly there is no consent in that circumstance — it doesn’t matter whether or not the non-consensual condom removal was overt, or if it was deceptive,” she added.
The case in question involves two people who interacted online in 2017, met in person to see if they were sexually compatible, and then met to have sex. The woman, whose name was shielded by a publication ban, had predicated her agreement to sex on the use of a condom. During one of two sexual encounters at that meeting, the accused man didn’t wear a condom, unknown to the woman, who later took preventive H.I.V. treatment.
The defendant, Ross McKenzie Kirkpatrick, was charged with sexual assault. However, the trial court judge dismissed the charge, accepting Mr. Kirkpatrick’s argument that the complainant had consented to the sexual relations, despite Mr. Kirkpatrick’s failure to wear a condom.
The ruling was overturned by the British Columbia Court of Appeal, which ordered a new trial. Mr. Kirkpatrick appealed that decision to the country’s top court, which heard arguments last November.
“Sexual intercourse without a condom is a fundamentally and qualitatively different physical act than sexual intercourse with a condom,” states the ruling, which was approved by a 5-4 vote by the court, and was released on Friday.
It adds, “Condom use cannot be irrelevant, secondary or incidental when the complainant has expressly conditioned her consent on it.”
Mr. Kirkpatrick’s lawyer said the new interpretation of the criminal code, which will be standard across the country, would drastically change the rules around sexual consent, making it almost like a binding contract that could be signed in advance.
“In Canada, consent is always in the moment. But what this decision does, it creates an element of consent far from the moment of sexual activity — in this case days or even a week before the sexual encounter,” said Phil Cote, a defense lawyer in Surrey, British Columbia.
“If there’s a moral to be taken from this for everyone, but particularly for men, is that you have to be sure there is active and engaged consent. And if you are not sure, you should ask,” he added. “But unfortunately, that’s not how sexual encounters go.”
The practice, popularly known as “stealthing,” has become prevalent enough that some Canadian universities have incorporated it into their sexual violence prevention policies.
Last year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law which made stealthing illegal — a first in the United States. However, the law amended the state’s civil definition of sexual battery, offering victims grounds to sue their assailants for damages, but it didn’t alter the criminal code. Around the same time, the Legislative Assembly in the Australian Capital Territory, which includes Canberra, also passed new laws that define stealthing as an act of sexual assault.
Courts in Britain and Switzerland have convicted people of crimes for removing condoms during intercourse.
Canada has passed increasingly restrictive laws against sexual assault since 1983, when it amended its rape law by replacing rape with three criminal offenses that broaden the definition of sexual assault to include violent actions other than non-consensual penetration.
[Feature] It Takes More Than A Village to End HIV Criminalisation
The proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child”. But what if a mother in the village is living with HIV, and some of the villagers stigmatise her? What if that stigma creates a situation where the mother living with HIV is unjustly criminalised because of her HIV status? Then it takes more than a village to get justice for that woman. It takes a global movement to end HIV criminalisation to sensitise and train lawyers and expert witnesses. It takes national communities of women living with HIV to support that woman following her release, and to educate the community in which she lives about HIV.
In 2016, a Malawi court convicted a woman living with HIV of “negligently and recklessly doing an act likely to spread the infection of any disease which is dangerous to life” under section 192 of the Malawi Penal Code. She had attended a village meeting with her baby which she breastfed as usual before passing the child to her grandmother. Another woman then asked her to hold her baby. It was alleged that this child began breastfeeding briefly before the woman realised what was happening. The child’s mother then reported the incident to the police. The woman was arrested and without legal advice or representation, pleaded guilty, was convicted, and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment with hard labour.
In addition, the accused woman was taking antiretroviral therapy. The chances of HIV transmission through even long-term breastfeeding are very low (which is why WHO guidelines recommend it when access to infant formula and clean water are limited) and the chances of transmission during the brief period the baby allegedly fed were infinitesimally small. In fact, the accused woman’s own child, who was routinely breastfed, has not acquired HIV, calling into question any suggestion that she intended to cause harm to the other woman’s child. Perversely, for a system that unjustly condemned her for risking harm to the other woman’s child, her own baby was imprisoned with her, without any arrangements for appropriate feeding and care, negating any notion that the legal system’s purpose was to protect children.
Following media reports of her initial conviction, numerous individuals and organisations – including HJN and our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners, ARASA and SALC – became involved in the case, ultimately changing the outcome for the woman and her family, and laying the groundwork for further anti-HIV stigma advocacy and education in the region. Her story demonstrates the vital role that education, training, strong networks, and community play in the pursuit of HIV justice.
Living with HIV-related stigma
When interviewed at her home in 2019, the woman referred to as “EL” talked about her life:
 The initials EL are used instead of her full name following a court order of anonymity to protect her privacy. The interview took place in 2019, during the village visit described later in this article.
“As kids, there were the two of us — me and my brother. My parents faced challenges raising us. Finding the basic necessities like soap and food was a tall order, let alone talking about going to school. It was difficult to get learning materials as well as proper clothes to wear at school. I worked hard in class but couldn’t get past Standard 5 at primary school. Eventually I dropped out, and my brother did the same, … My daily life was taken up doing house chores just like any other girl in the village, as well as helping my parents with farming. At 16, I got married.”
EL further described how she was diagnosed HIV-positive in 2015 after a de facto compulsory HIV test at an antenatal visit. She already had two children and was pregnant with her third. She had heard about HIV but did not know much about it. EL said that the healthcare workers provided a lot of assistance, giving her accurate information about HIV, including the importance of adhering to her antiretroviral treatment (ARVs).
EL said that she generally enjoyed life in her village, although at times she was subject to stigma and discrimination:
“When I went to fetch water at the community borehole, people would laugh at me, and whenever I wanted to participate in community work, you would find pockets of community members talking ill about me. Some people used to insult me, calling me names. But I persevered because my relatives, including the Village Headman himself, gave me support and always stood by my side.”
Members of EL’s family also faced discrimination. “Due to lack of information, a lot of people thought HIV was hereditary and because I was diagnosed HIV-positive, this meant that all my family members had HIV, and they were discriminated against,” EL said.
EL wonders if more could have been done to help her fight stigma. In particular, EL gained a lot of knowledge about HIV from the counselling she got when diagnosed, but perhaps she could have been better equipped with information to share with people in her community:
“A lot of people don’t know that if you adhere to ARVs, you reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others. This information needs to be passed on to many people. There are also other issues to do with ARVs. A lot of people don’t have adequate information on the effects of ARVs and at the end of the day, they start pointing fingers at each other, giving people room to start speculating about issues to do with witchcraft.”
EL’s prosecution had repercussions for her whole village. One woman from the community explained:
“I was there and very close to where EL was sitting. Yes, she was carrying another woman’s child. This other woman had given the child to EL for safe keeping while she went to stand in a queue, but honestly speaking, I didn’t see EL breastfeed the child. I just heard some people who were sitting a distance from where we were sitting, as they started pointing accusing fingers at her.”
She said that things moved so fast that before they could think of anything to stop what she called “the rumour.” It had gotten out of hand and people started saying that EL had intentionally breastfed the child to transmit HIV.
After receiving a summons, EL voluntarily turned herself in at the police station. She was accompanied by the Village Headman (her grandfather) who wanted first-hand information about what crime she was alleged to have committed. That same day, police transferred EL to a larger town, where she was remanded for three days. At the age of 29, this was the first time that EL had ever left her village.
Days later, she appeared in court and the charge sheet was read out. EL recounted that she had not understood what was happening and could not make arguments because she had no legal representation. EL agreed with the summary of events as they were described, so she was found guilty and was imprisoned together with her youngest child.
She described life in prison as “hell”:
“After a week, my brother showed up to give me my ARVs. All this talk about a woman with HIV breastfeeding. I breastfed but I also found it tough to feed my baby while in prison because there was no provision of special food for babies. We were eating nandolo (pigeon peas) almost every day with Msima ya Mgaiwa (maize meal). And there was only one toilet for a cell of more than 50 people.”
After some time, relatives and other members of her community started visiting, giving her money she could use to buy soap and food for her baby. “When we heard from our Village Headman that she had been arrested, we were so devastated”, a woman from EL’s village explained. “We raised funds for some members to go and give her support only to learn that she had been transferred to one town, then another, but some of us did manage on several occasions to visit her and offer our support when she was in prison.”
Then, out of the blue, EL received a message that some people had come looking for her. She went to meet them: a lawyer, Wesley Mwafulirwa, and his paralegal. They explained why they were there and asked if she would like them to appeal on her behalf. She accepted enthusiastically. “I was excited but at the same time I was confused because I could not believe that I could be so lucky to have these people come to help me.”
Fighting the charges
Solicitor Wesley Mwafulirwa had volunteered to attend training to address legal barriers to prison health and human rights presented by the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC). He travelled from Malawi to South Africa to attend the training which addressed useful regional and international mechanisms, and presented insights about legal practice and strategic litigation to support prison health and human rights, particularly for those facing heightened vulnerability to HIV and TB.
At the training, two lawyers spoke about their pro bono work. Wesley remembers one of them, Allan Maleche (Executive Director of KELIN), saying that each participant should take at least one case when they go back to their country. It was a turning point in Wesley’s career.
He had not been home long when he saw an article in the newspaper about an HIV-positive person convicted for trying to spread HIV. That person was EL.
Wesley, who lives in a small town in northern Malawi, drove for more than ten hours to get to the jail where EL was incarcerated. He explained his determination, saying “I was so fired up! I’d just come from SALC’s training … and I said, ‘I want to take up this case’.”
Wesley interviewed EL and offered to take her case pro bono. Wesley contacted SALC, who offered technical support. Their first step was to get an order for anonymity to protect EL’s identity and gain greater control over media reporting. Next, they faced an ethical question. They wanted to challenge the constitutionality of the law but that would take a long time. Because EL was in prison, they decided to undertake a criminal appeal instead. They applied for EL to be let out of custody on bail pending appeal. This is usually a difficult application to win, but they were successful and EL was released from prison.
In the appeal, the court was asked to consider whether the conviction could be justified, whether the penal provision was constitutional (arguing it was overly broad and vague), and whether the sentence was manifestly unjust. Wesley used his learnings from the SALC training to raise international principles and instruments relating to sentencing, which the court referenced and upheld. Michaela Clayton, then Executive Director of the AIDS and Rights Alliance for southern Africa (ARASA), and now a member of HJN’s Supervisory Board, provided expert testimony. Another expert witness, Dr Ruth Brand, identified through HJN’s global network, gave expert scientific evidence to show the risk of HIV transmission had been “infinitesimally small.”
The case was heard by Honourable Justice Zione Ntaba, who held that the proceedings in the trial court were irregular and “blatantly bias” against EL, compromising her right to a fair trial. Justice Ntaba found the charge sheet had been defective and therefore EL’s plea should not have been recorded as guilty. She noted the law must be sensitive to the accused’s knowledge or belief (or lack of) that HIV would be transmitted. Justice Ntaba decided the conviction could not be justified, acknowledging human rights principles against the overly broad criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, exposure, or transmission. EL’s sentence was set aside. (The Constitutional challenge was referred to a full-member panel of the Constitutional Court although the case was not pursued.)
Notably, Justice Ntaba was a member of the African Regional Judges Forum to discuss HIV, TB and Human Rights (a process which is owned and planned by the judges and run with support from UNDP and funding from the Global Fund).
Fighting the stigma
Shortly after EL’s arrest, the Coalition of Women and Girls Living with HIV and AIDS in Malawi (COWLHA) and the Malawi branch of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW-Malawi) discussed the case at a roundtable meeting. At first, everyone was surprised and even laughed, questioning how she could have breastfed someone else’s child. They had never heard of a criminal case involving infant feeding and did not understand what they were dealing with.
During their discussions, COWLHA and ICW-Malawi agreed that the prosecution of EL was a manifestation of stigma and misinformation about HIV in the community. They learned more about the unjust measures that EL had experienced, like being imprisoned without being given a chance to be heard and not being given the chance to prepare and take her medication and things she needed to care for her child. COWLHA and ICW decided to get involved.
Concerned that EL could face social and community hostility after her release, COWHLA and ICW planned a visit to the village to provide psychosocial support to EL and to work with traditional community leaders to provide community sensitisation on HIV, addressing issues of stigma and discrimination. Their efforts helped change some community members’ ideas about HIV.
The community formed two support groups— one for youth and another for adults (notably both were predominantly female groups). They have conducted numerous activities, including home visits, supporting children to go to school, helping the elderly with house chores, and they have a garden where they grow vegetables and rice. They hoped to access loans to become self-reliant. They also had a list of issues they wanted to learn more about, including preventing mother-to-child transmission, sexual and reproductive health, positive living, stigma and discrimination, and treatment literacy.
Visiting EL at home
In September 2019, a three-member team comprising Edna Tembo (Executive Director of COWLHA), Charity Mkona (ICW Board Chair), and Peter Gwazayani (media consultant), set out for EL’s village.
The team was welcomed by the Group Village Headman, who took them to EL’s house. EL recognised Edna from the work COWLHA and ICW-Malawi had done in the community previously. EL welcomed the team with a big smile.
EL and her husband looked cheerful as they laid a mat on the veranda of their house for the visitors. Her mother later joined the discussion.
EL was interested to learn that HJN wanted to write about her case and the type of interventions that had been helpful, to share the story with advocates for HIV justice around the world.
EL recounted that when she returned to the village, “most members of my community received me with happiness, particularly my relatives. The day I arrived, they were jubilant. They celebrated with songs that we normally sing during special occasions in the village.”
EL lives with her husband, five children and her mother in a compound made up of three grass thatched houses. She introduced her children:
“The oldest is 13 and she goes to school, as do the second and third. The fourth, a little girl, is the child I was with in prison. She has not yet started school. And then there is this one, who I am breastfeeding. She is the fifth one. She has been tested for HIV on two occasions and will be going for the last test soon. The other two tests have come back HIV-negative.”
EL’s accuser and her family still lives in the same village which has presented some difficulties. EL said that on several occasions she had tried to greet them when they passed each other, but she had been ignored. “They don’t talk to me but from deep down in my heart, I have no grudges against them,” EL said. “I am just living my normal life,” EL says, although now she says that she would never agree to carry anybody else’s child, for any reason.
Moving beyond criminalisation
With respect to the community-level interventions, lawyer Annabel Raw, who worked at SALC during the time they supported the EL case said:
“As lawyers, we would never have thought to consider such an intervention had ICW-Malawi and COWLHA not shared their insights and been willing to support the client and her community. Their work has been so important to ensuring that meaningful justice was done to combat the actual root cause of the prosecution — stigma and discrimination — and to reconcile EL with her community.”
Engaging with the community also influenced ICW-Malawi and COWLHA’s thinking about HIV criminalisation. COWLHA’s Edna Tembo noted that:
Supporting people who have been prosecuted, particularly women, gives them power, … However, it is very important to stress that psychological support is absolutely vital for those who have been prosecuted. That includes family support, and a supportive community environment enabling acceptance of an individual accused.”
Tembo was also quick to emphasise that there is more work to be done. That work includes awareness raising and ongoing support to the community, especially to identify and train volunteers, empowering them to provide services at community level and to link them to health facilities and district offices for continued support and mentorship.
EL described her dreams for the future:
“My wish now is to see my children progress in school so that they become productive citizens in this community and help it grow. That’s my dream. If they get educated, they will be able to stand on their own and support others. My husband is not employed and it is a challenge to get money for school fees for our children. We would love to get a loan or training to have greater knowledge of economic empowerment because we want to be self-reliant. We would then love to lease some land to grow rice to sell to pay back the loan.
“It’s also my wish to see the lives of all people in the community uplifted. We farm but on a small-scale. If we were to be supported with funds, I’d love to see the community establish big rice farms, working in groups, harvesting for consumption and for sale. In so doing, we would be able to uplift our lives for the better.”
Learn more about Wesley’s experiences in EL’s case here and here.
Learn more about the African Regional Judges Forum here.
The full High Court judgement is available here, with a summary included here.
Read more about the successful HIV and AIDS Management Act community advocacy here.
This article is based on information provided by ICW-Malawi and COWLHA following their visits to EL’s village, and an interview with Wesley Mwafulirwa published by UNDP. HJN provided financial and logistical support for the village visits thanks to a grant provided to the HIV Justice Global Consortium from the Robert Carr Fund for civil society networks.
Uganda to re-consider problematic HIV law provisions
Constitutional Court Judge Christopher Izama Madrama has instructed the Attorney General of the Government of Uganda to submit a formal reply to the HIV Constitutional Petition No. 4 of 2016, after it came up for mention in the Court on August 12th, 2021.
The petition, by a coalition of HIV, human rights, and LGBTQ organisations, seeks for the removal of three problematic clauses in the HIV Prevention and Control Act which was passed on May 13, 2014 by the Ugandan Parliament.
The Act allows for stringent punishments for the vague ‘crimes’ of attempted and intentional HIV transmission. The other problematic provisions in the Act are mandatory HIV testing for pregnant women and their partners and allowing medical providers to disclose a patient’s HIV status to others without consent.
This is the one of three pieces of good news from Uganda this week.
Earlier this year, HJN joined other civil society and human rights organisations in condemning the passage of Uganda’s Sexual Offences Bill which would have negatively impacted sex workers, the LGBTQ communities, and people living with HIV.
The Bill defined rape as ‘misrepresentation’, running the very real risk of being interpreted by the criminal legal system as HIV status non-disclosure. If the accused was found to be living with HIV, this would have resulted in the death penalty.
However, last week it was reported that President Museveni declined to sign the Bill into law, saying many provisions are redundant and already provided for in other laws.
In addition, last week Uganda’s Constitutional Court scrapped a controversial anti-pornography law whose provisions included a ban on women wearing miniskirts in public saying the law was “inconsistent with or in contravention of the constitution of the Republic of Uganda.”
Year in review: Celebrating successes, highlighting the many challenges ahead
This past year has shown us what happens when one pandemic – HIV – is overshadowed by another pandemic, COVID-19. Despite the many lessons learned from our collective advocacy against HIV criminalisation that we and our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners highlighted in March, these lessons were mostly ignored by policymakers around the world.
The result was a series of knee-jerk legal, policy and police responses leading to the overzealous policing of people living with HIV and other key and inadequately served populations already subject to existing inequalities in law and policy, which we have been highlighting in our HIV Justice Weekly newsletter since March.
This latest pandemic overshadowed, and in some cases undermined, the work we and others have been doing to ensure a fair, just, rational and evidence-based response towards people living with HIV by the criminal justice system.
2020 also saw Poland passing a new law against COVID-19 that also increased the criminal penalty for HIV exposure, and number of disappointing HIV criminalisation higher court appeals in the US (Ohio), and Canada (Ontario and Alberta) that appeared to ignore science over stigma.
And yet, despite the many difficulties of 2020, the movement to end unjust HIV criminalisation has continued to gain momentum.
There is still so much more to do, however. Despite these successes, as well as the many milestones the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE movement has achieved since its launch in 2016, we will not rest until everyone living with HIV in all their diversity is treated equally, fairly and justly by all actors of the criminal justice system.
Canada: New article examines the damaging impact of the Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Cuerrier
The Complex Legacy of R. v. Cuerrier: HIV Nondisclosure Prosecutions and Their Impact on Sexual Assault Law
This article examines the impact of the Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Cuerrier from two vantage points. First, the article examines the impact of the decision on HIV nondisclosure prosecutions. Second, it examines the damage done by Cuerrier to sexual assault law outside of the HIV context. The article argues that Cuerrier has both overcriminalized people living with HIV and distorted the law of sexual assault. Through Cuerrier, and subsequent cases, the Supreme Court of Canada has unduly limited the concept of consent and its voluntariness requirement, and distorted the concept of fraud such that deceptions around sex are only criminalized where they cause a significant risk of serious bodily harm. It is argued that legislatively removing HIV nondisclosure prosecutions from the scope of sexual assault offences, and making corresponding changes to the definition of consent, is the only way to remedy the harm done to people with HIV and to sexual assault law more generally.
An HIV-AIDS legal advocate says Alberta’s top court has turned a deaf ear to the concerns of Canada’s HIV-AIDs community by upholding the automatic, lifetime listing of convicted sex offenders in a national registry, even if the assault conviction is based on a failure to disclose HIV or AIDS.
In a Sept. 3 split decision in R. v. Ndhlovu 2020 ABCA 307, the majority for the Alberta Court of Appeal overturned a 2016 ruling by now retired Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Andrea B. Moen, who found that Eugen Ndhlovu should not be subjected to mandatory registration and reporting for life under the Sex Offenders Information Registration Act (SOIRA), even though he had been convicted of two counts of sexual assault.
The Toronto-based Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (CHALN) and the HIV and AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO) applied for and were granted joint intervener status by the Alberta Court of Appeal. They argued that when sexual activity is consensual, an accused with HIV or AIDS with a suppressed viral load and no realistic possibility of transmitting HIV should not be prosecuted and that automatic listing of such offenders in the national sex offender registry is overbroad and grossly disproportionate under the Charter. CHALN and HALCO were the only interveners in the case.
However, the Court of Appeal declined to assess what it described as a “hypothetical” scenario involving a sexual offence stemming from non-disclosure of HIV.
“As this Court has previously found, assessing hypotheticals afresh on appeal is not ideal,” Justice Frederica Schutz wrote for the majority, including Justice Frans Slatter. “More specifically, in this matter the issues raised by the Intervenors including inter alia, assessing the risk of HIV transmission posed by an offender’s viral load, are outside the bounds of the facts and evidence presented in this case, particularly if the offender was to stop taking his medication.”
Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network said more than 200 people a year in Canada plead guilty to, or are convicted of, sex-related charges due to HIV non-disclosure. Most typically, he said, the charge is aggravated sexual assault.
“There’s an ongoing problem here with what we characterize and many increasingly recognize as the overly broad use of the criminal law in this domain, and it has these very serious, harsh consequences,” he told The Lawyer’s Daily. “In addition to the ordinary sentencing provisions about years of imprisonment — including potential maximum life imprisonment for an aggravated sexual assault charge — there’s also this added punitive feature of mandatory lifetime designation as a sex offender.”
The Court of Appeal’s choice to ignore the issue was, at the very least, a surprise, said Elliott.
“The court itself granted us intervener status, presumably on the basis that they felt that the argument we proposed to advance had some relevance to the issue,” he said. “So having done that, it’s a bit strange to then not address the issue that you authorized the interveners to bring forward. So I’m not really sure what the point was.”
SOIRA was amended by the Conservative government of former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2011 to remove judicial discretion and require mandatory lifetime registration for anyone convicted of more than one sexual offence. The registry is only accessible by law enforcement officials. Those registered under SOIRA are also required to report to law enforcement authorities once a year for life. Both Justice Schutz and Justice Slatter are Harper appointees.
At his 2015 trial, Ndhlovu, then 19, was found guilty of sexually assaulting two women at a 2011 house party. Justice Moen later sentenced him to six months in jail followed by three years of probation. But she found the provisions in the Criminal Code related to SOIRA violated s. 7 of the Charter because she concluded they are overbroad and grossly disproportionate.
In a 2018 challenge by the Crown, Justice Moen found that those provisions could not be saved by the Charter’s s. 1 reasonable limits clause. The Alberta Court of Appeal majority disagreed.
“I conclude the sentencing judge erred in finding that the respondent had established a deprivation of his right under s. 7 to life, liberty or security of the person that was not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,” wrote Justice Schutz. “In the result,” she added, “ss 490.012 and 490.0 13(2.1) of the Criminal Code are constitutionally valid.
“The registration and reporting requirements under SOIRA are not so onerous as to be divorced from the purpose of the legislation,” the majority found.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ritu Khullar, appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2018, found that sections 490.012 and 490.013(2.1) of the Criminal Code violate an individual’s s. 7 liberty rights and are overbroad because they apply to sex offenders who are a very low risk to reoffend, like Ndhlovu.
“The Crown failed to show that s 490.013(2.1), which requires lifetime registration for offenders who have committed more than one designated offence, minimally impairs the liberty interest of very low risk offenders,” wrote Justice Khullar. “It also failed to establish that s 490.0 12 requiring mandatory registration, or s 490.013(2.1), contributed to any extent to preventing or investigating sexual crimes, so both provisions are disproportionate under the final stage of the Oakes test.”
The Oakes test is an analysis of the Charter’s limitations clause created by the Supreme Court of Canada in its decision in R. v. Oakes  1 S.C.R. 103.
The split Alberta Court of Appeal decision now opens the way potentially for the issue of mandatory, lifetime registration under SOIRA to go before the Supreme Court of Canada. Lawyer Elvis Iginla of Edmonton-based Iginla & Co., who served as counsel for Ndhlovu, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Professor Lisa Silver with the University of Calgary Faculty of Law called the majority decision a “very old school way of looking at constitutional law.”
“The majority does talk about in their reasons the importance of deference to Parliament,” she told The Lawyer’s Daily. “And in paragraph 88, the majority goes on to say policymakers are entitled to make choices within a reasonable range of options. The courts are not Parliament’s micro-managers.
“Of course,” she added, “the flip side of it is that courts have a duty to be that judicial scrutiny, that oversight, when it comes to legislation to ensure that it is consistent with the Charter.”
Silver said there is an increased possibility that the Supreme Court of Canada would grant leave to appeal the Appeal Court decision because Justice Khullar’s strong dissent brings out a different perspective on s. 7 of the Charter by highlighting privacy interests.
“That to me is an issue of national importance,” she said, “and it’s also an issue that hasn’t been fully developed in the Supreme Court of Canada.”
The Supreme Court of Canada might also intervene because the majority may have made an error by accusing the sentencing judge of reformulating the objective of the SOIRA amendments, said Silver.
However, she noted, a decision is already pending from the Supreme Court in Attorney General of Ontario v. G., which relates to mandatory listing on the Ontario sex offenders’ registry (Christopher’s Law) for a person who was deemed not criminally responsible.
The Ontario Court of Appeal unanimously allowed G’s appeal and concluded that the provincial and federal sex offender registries infringed G’s s. 15 Charter rights (and those of individuals in his situation), and that such infringements cannot be saved under s. 1. The Court of Appeal declared Christopher’s Law and SOIRA to be of no force or effect in their application to individuals in G’s situation. The Attorney General of Ontario appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and arguments have been heard.
“Even though it’s not the same kind of offender,” said Silver, “it doesn’t make a difference when it comes to the Charter argument. I wonder, though, if the Supreme Court of Canada, when they come to their decision in G., is going to make the kind of broad comments about these kinds of legislation and how the Charter applies to them.”
Elliott agreed that there is a good chance the Supreme Court will want to review the Alberta Court of Appeal decision upholding mandatory registration of sex offenders.
“This is a live issue, and it seems to me that it may well be the sort of issue that the Supreme Court is ultimately going to have to revisit,” he said. “If they chose to revisit it, whether it’s in granting leave to appeal from this decision or in a subsequent case that may come along, certainly our concern will still remain as long as HIV non-disclosure is being captured under the law of sexual assault and these consequences therefore attach to people.”
Canada: Statement about Court of Appeal decision that a condom alone is not enough to preclude duty to disclose HIV status
Statement: Court decision means lawmakers must act to end unjust, unscientific prosecutions of People Living with HIV
The following statement is issued jointly by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (“Legal Network”), the Coalition des organismes communautaires québécois de lutte contre le sida (COCQ-SIDA), and the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO).
August 7, 2020 — This week, the Ontario Court of Appeal released its decision in R. v N.G., a case in which a young man living with HIV appealed his conviction on aggravated sexual assault charges for not disclosing his HIV-positive status before sexual intercourse — despite using a condom in every instance. There was no allegation that HIV was transmitted and no evidence of any incorrect condom use.
We appeared before the Court as interveners when the appeal was heard in February. We argued that correct condom use is, and should be, sufficient to prevent criminal prosecution, based on sound science, a proper reading of the law, and various public policy reasons.Regrettably, the Court has disagreed, upholding N.G.’s conviction.
The Court’s decision underscores the importance of the federal government bringing forward legislative changes to the Criminal Code to prevent the continued misuse of criminal charges that are contrary to science, lead to unjust convictions and ultimately undermine public health.
The decisions of the trial judge and the Court of Appeal were based on the 2012 Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Mabior. Both courts said they were bound to follow that decision and saw insufficient reason to depart from it. That case has often been interpreted as saying that the law always requires both a low viral load and condom use in order to negate a “realistic possibility of HIV transmission,” which the Supreme Court declared is the legal threshold triggering a duty to disclose. However, the Supreme Court was not so categorical in its decision, and recognized that the law could adapt in the future.
It is wrong to insist that botha low viral load (i.e., the presence of HIV in significantly suppressed in the body) andcondom use are required in order to negate a realistic possibility of HIV transmission. Since the Supreme Court’s decision eight years ago, there have been cases in which, based on the scientific evidence before them, courts have concluded that a low viral load on its own negates a realistic possibility of transmission. This recognizes the global consensus that a person with a suppressed viral load cannot sexually transmit HIV — in other words, “Undetectable = Untransmittable.”
It’s time for the law to catch up with the science and recognize that condoms can also negate a realistic possibility of transmission.
The consensus of scientific experts across Canada and around the world, as noted in the original 2014 consensus statement of Canadian scientists and the more recent 2018 international Expert Consensus Statement, is that “correct use of a condom during sex means HIV transmission is not possible.” One court in Canada has already recognized this, acquitting on the basis of condom use alone (in a 2018 Nova Scotia case), meaning there are inconsistent court decisions in different parts of the country.
The Attorney General of Canada and Department of Justice have previously recognized in 2017 that the “overcriminalization of HIV” is an ongoing problem, contributing to HIV stigma and undermining testing, treatment and public health. Based on a scientific and legal review, in 2018 the Attorney General issued a directive to federal prosecutors that there should generally be no prosecution for alleged HIV non-disclosure in the case of condom use, because there is likely no realistic possibility of transmission. (This directive applies only in the territories, not the provinces.)
Continuing to criminalize people living with HIV — even when condoms are used — is also discriminatory and an overly broad application of the criminal law that is harmful and bad for public health. The injustice is compounded by the severe consequences of a conviction for aggravated sexual assault, including years in prison, mandatory lifetime designation as a sex offender and, in some cases, deportation. These are grossly disproportionate penalties for a sexual encounter that is otherwise consensual, and in which a person has taken a highly effective precaution that means either zero risk or at most a negligible risk of HIV transmission. The burden of overly broad use of the criminal law also falls disproportionately on Black, Indigenous and gay communities, as recognized by Justice Canada in its 2017 report.
In June of last year, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights recognized there is a need for reforms to the Criminal Code that would end the use of sexual assault charges to deal with HIV non-disclosure and limit any criminalization to cases of actual transmission. The ruling from the Ontario Court of Appeal means that it is all the more urgent that the government act on these calls for change and put an end, through legislative amendments, to the unscientific and unjust use of the criminal law.
For more information:
Watch a video explaining the criminalization of people living with HIV in Canada.
New sexual assault trial ordered for man accused of reneging on promise to wear protection
B.C.’s appeal court has ordered a new trial for a man acquitted of sexual assault after he allegedly reneged on a promise to wear a condom during sex.
In a case that explores the boundaries and definitions of sexual activity and consent, the three appeal court judges all reached the same conclusion — while apparently disagreeing with each other on exactly why.
Two of the judges agreed that sex without a condom is a fundamentally different activity — legally — from sex with a condom.
And one of those judges then switched sides to join the dissenting judge in finding there was evidence the accused had defrauded the alleged victim into having sex with him.
Either way, X faces another trial.
No ‘evidence of dishonesty’
The original B.C. provincial court trial in Surrey in 2018 ended in acquittal without X’s testimony. A provincial court judge found there was no evidence to support either the woman’s contention that she hadn’t consented to sexual activity or that her consent had essentially been obtained through fraud.
“I am unable to find any evidence of dishonesty on the part of the accused that could result in a conviction,” the trial judge wrote.
In the appeal, however, Justice Harvey Groberman concluded: “As there was evidence indicating that the accused engaged in sexual intercourse without a condom, knowing that the complainant required him to wear one, the judge erred in granting the no-evidence motion. In the result, I would set aside the acquittal and remit the matter to the provincial court for a new trial.”
In the opening to his majority reasons for judgment, Groberman wrote: “The question on this appeal is a simple one: where a person consents to engage in sexual intercourse on condition that their sexual partner wear a condom, can that partner ignore the condition without being subject to criminal liability?”
Insisted on use of condoms
The alleged offence occurred in March 2017, a few days after the couple first met in person. They had spoken online prior to that meeting and, face-to-face, they discussed sexual practices.
The woman said she told X she insisted on the use of condoms.
“The accused agreed that such a practice was safest for all concerned,” the appeal judgment says.
A few days later, the woman went to X’s house just after midnight, where they went up to his bedroom and undressed.
“She asked if he had a condom, and added that if he did not, she did,” the judgment says.
Awoke in the night
“He replied that he did, and reached onto a side table to get one, which he put on. The two then engaged in vaginal intercourse.”
According to the ruling, the woman awoke in the night to find X sexually aroused. She claimed she pushed him away and he turned briefly to the side table.
“Although the complainant believed that he was getting a condom, he was not doing so,” Groberman wrote. “The two then engaged in sexual intercourse.”
The woman said X told her he was “too excited to wear a condom.”
She took the matter to the police.
Related Nova Scotia case
Complicating matters in the appeal was a Supreme Court of Canada decision in which the country’s highest court considered questions of sexual activity and consent in a Nova Scotia case involving a man who poked a pin in a condom before having sex with a woman who then became pregnant.
In that ruling, the judges upheld the man’s sexual assault conviction, finding that while the victim consented to have sex, her consent was nullified by the accused’s deception.
“The accused’s condom sabotage constituted fraud … the result that no consent was obtained,” Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Thomas Cromwell wrote on behalf of the court.
“A person consents to how she will be touched, and she is entitled to decide what sexual activity she agrees to engage in for whatever reason she wishes.”
But in X’s case, the implications of their ruling were interpreted differently by each of the B.C. appeal court judges.
What is ‘sexual activity’?
The question at the heart of the case concerns the definition of “sexual activity” and whether intercourse with a condom is a different type of activity from intercourse without.
Groberman and Justice Mary Saunders agreed that it was — and that as such, the woman had not consented to the sexual activity Kirkpatrick engaged in without protection.
“This is a case about sexual activity that the complainant consented to,” Groberman wrote.
“On her evidence, she did not consent to the accused penetrating her with his unsheathed penis.”
But Justice Elizabeth Bennett disagreed, saying the woman had consented to sexual activity.
Sided with Groberman
She said she didn’t think the Supreme Court of Canada judges meant to distinguish sex with a condom from sex without in defining “the basic physical act” of intercourse, in part because that could lead to the criminalization of defective condoms.
However, she still thought the lower court judge was wrong — because Bennett said there was enough evidence to conclude that Kirkpatrick had obtained the alleged victim’s consent through fraud to warrant holding a new trial.
Saunders — the judge who agreed with Groberman on the first part of the ruling — sided with Bennett and against Groberman on that part of the opinion.
X’s lawyer said his client is seeking leave to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.
US: Ohio Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of the State’s HIV Disclosure law
Statute Requiring Disclosure of HIV Positive Status to Sexual Partners Is Constitutional
The Supreme Court today unanimously upheld the constitutionality of R.C. 2903.11(B)(1), Ohio’s HIV-disclosure statute, which makes it a crime for a person who has tested positive for HIV to knowingly engage in sexual conduct with another without disclosing that information, concluding that it does not violate either the free speech provision of the First Amendment or the Equal Protection Clauses of the United States or Ohio Constitutions.
In a majority opinion authored by Justice Terrence O’Donnell, the Court concluded that because R.C. 2903.11(B)(1) regulates conduct, not speech, it does not violate the First Amendment, and because it is rationally related to the state’s legitimate interest in preventing the transmission of HIV to sexual partners who may not be aware of the risk, it does not violate equal protection.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Justice William M. O’Neill, and Eleventh District Court of Appeals Judge Thomas R. Wright, sitting for Justice Patrick F. Fischer, joined the majority opinion.
In a concurring opinion, Justice R. Patrick DeWine wrote that the law regulates speech as well as conduct. The concurrence found, however, that the law constitutionally regulates speech because it is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental interest and is the least-restrictive way of doing so. Justice DeWine’s concurrence was joined by Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Judith L. French.
Batista Indicted for Violating R.C. 2903.11(B)(1) In 2001, while Orlando Batista was incarcerated on an unrelated charge, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction tested him for HIV and informed him that he was positive for the disease. After his release, he began a relationship with a woman identified in court documents as R.S. and engaged in intercourse with her without disclosing his HIV positive status to her prior to engaging in that conduct. Two months later, R.S. learned of Batista’s HIV positive status. When R.S. confronted him about it, he acknowledged he had tested positive for the virus and told her he had been infected since he was a teenager. In a subsequent interview with police, Batista admitted to having intercourse with R.S. without telling her he was HIV positive.
A grand juryindicted Batista for violating R.C. 2903.11(B)(1). He moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing the law violated the First Amendment right to free speech and the Equal Protection Clauses of both the United States and Ohio Constitutions. The trial court denied the motion, and Batista subsequently pleaded no contest to the charge. The trial court found him guilty and sentenced him to eight years in prison.
The First District Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, concluding the statute did not violate the First Amendment or the Equal Protection Clauses of the United States and Ohio Constitutions. Batista appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
Statute Regulates Conduct, Not Speech Justice Terrence O’Donnell, writing for the majority, explained that the First Amendment does not prohibit statutes that regulate conduct from imposing incidental burdens on speech.
The Court noted that the Missouri and Illinois supreme courts have held that statutes similar to R.C. 2903.11(B)(1) did not regulate speech and therefore did not violate the First Amendment.
Referencing those decisions, the majority concluded that “[a]lthough R.C. 2903.11(B)(1) requires those who know they are HIV positive to disclose their status if they choose to engage in sexual conduct with another person, the disclosure is incidental to the statute’s regulation of the targeted conduct. Thus, this statute regulates conduct, not speech, and therefore does not violate the First Amendment right to free speech.”
Statute Does Not Violate Right to Equal Protection Justice O’Donnell pointed out that R.C. 2903.11(B)(1)’s treatment of individuals with knowledge of their HIV-positive status who fail to disclose that status to a sexual partner furthers the state’s interest in “curbing HIV transmission to individuals who may not be aware of the risk,” and concluded that the statute does not violate equal protection because “there is some conceivable basis to support the legislative arrangement.”
He further explained that “the existence of other sexually transmitted diseases that may have serious public health and safety consequences does not eliminate the rational relationship between the classification here—individuals with knowledge of their HIV-positive status who fail to disclose that status to sexual partners—and the goal of curbing HIV transmission.”
The majority opinion concluded “that there have been advancements in the treatment of individuals with HIV that may have reduced the transmission and mortality rates associated with the disease. However, we cannot say that there is no plausible policy reason for the classification or that the relationship between the classification and the policy goal renders it arbitrary or irrational.”
Concurrence Finds Speech Regulation Justice DeWine wrote that he agrees with the majority that Batista’s rights were not violated, but reaches that conclusion “by a different path.”
“The statute plainly regulates both conduct and speech: one who tests positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (‘HIV’) must tell his partner that he is HIV positive before engaging in sex. When the government tells someone what he must say, it is regulating speech,” he wrote.
Justice DeWine explained that any law compelling content-based speech must pass the U.S. Supreme Court’s “strict scrutiny” test, which requires that a speech regulation be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest and use the least restrictive means to achieve it.
The concurrence stated that Ohio has an interest in limiting the spread of HIV and an interest in ensuring informed consent to sexual relations. The opinion noted that Batista essentially argued that because of the advancements of treatment, the health risks for HIV “are not really all that bad.”
“But the question is who gets to evaluate that risk: should the HIV-positive individual get to assess that risk for his sexual partner or should the partner get to make her own decision. Fair to say that most—if not all—people would insist on the right to make that decision for themselves,” the opinion stated.
The concurrence concluded that protecting public health and ensuring informed consent are compelling government interests, and that the law uses the least restrictive limit on speech by only requiring HIV-positive individuals to disclose their status to their sexual partners.
“I cannot fathom—and Batista has not advanced—any less restrictive or more narrowly tailored means that could have been employed by the government to achieve its interests here,” Justice DeWine wrote.
Please note:Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.
Spanish Supreme Court sets important HIV criminalisation precedent
The Spanish Supreme Court has set an important precedent for HIV criminalisation cases, making it clear that it is not solely up to the defendant to prove that they disclosed their HIV-positive status, as other factors can inform a court’s judgement about whether or not a complainant knew the accused was HIV-positive. The ruling should also make it more difficult for people to pursue vexatious or ‘revenge’ cases against ex-partners.
As outlined in a (Spanish-language) analysis by Professor Miguel Angel Ramiro Avilés, Legal Clinic Coordinator at the University of Alcalá, this decision is an important step forward in the construction of a rights-based HIV response in Spain, permitting a defence based on the principle of dubio pro reo, and the constitutional guarantee of the presumption of innocence.
However, in his conclusion he notes:
Finally, at no time during the proceedings before the Court was the relationship of causality questioned, and an attempt was made to carry out a phylogenetic analysis; nor was the question of [the defendant’s] viral load raised before the Court. This is a step in a long road ahead.
However, informed consent (usually obtained by proving prior disclosure of known HIV-positive status by the accused to the complainant) can be a defence, as is the case in most jurisdictions using general criminal laws, and so cases hinge on whether or not a complainant was aware of an accused’s HIV-positive status before sex occurred and consented to the risk of ‘harm’.
The March 2020 Supreme Court decision relates to the case of a woman who began a romantic relationship with the defendant in 2012, living with him for approximately 18 months. She was diagnosed HIV-positive in September 2013. Police were called to their home in June 2014 following an argument. They separated approximately three months later.
Following the separation, the woman complained to the police based on her belief that she had acquired HIV from her ex-partner. The police filed an assault charge using Article 149.1 of the Spanish Penal Code: causing aggravated injury. The charge was based on her assertion that if she had known her partner had been living with HIV, she would not have had condomless sex with him.
After an initial ‘not guilty’ verdict at the Provincial Court of Madrid (due to the complainant’s inconsistent testimony), the case was elevated to the Supreme Court. Like the Provincial Court, the Supreme Court did not consider evidence relating to whether or not the man had actually transmitted HIV to the woman (considering neither viral load nor phylogenetic analysis), accepting the assertion of HIV transmission at face value. Instead, the case hinged on the credibility of the woman’s testimony and associated evidence, as considered through a lens of dubio pro reo, (‘in cases of doubt, then for the accused’; i.e. innocent until proven guilty.)
The woman testified that she had specifically asked her ex-partner whether he had HIV and he had denied it, so she did not know he was HIV-positive.
The court, however, was not convinced that she was unaware of his HIV-positive status for a number of reasons. She testified that she had used cocaine and hashish with him, which suggested to the Court that she knew he engaged in ‘high risk’ activities associated with HIV transmission. A former friend testified that ‘the entire neighbourhood knew’ that the accused had HIV, so he could not understand how the woman would not have known. The accused’s sister had also warned the woman to ‘protect herself’ and ‘take measures’: the sister said she was sure that the woman had understood her meaning given the context of their conversation.
Medical evidence showed that during the relationship the defendant had visible lesions on his penis, which worsened during and after sex, which the Court found the woman must have seen and understood to be evidence of a sexually transmitted infection.
Further, the court took a dim view of the fact that she reported her partner only after their separation, making no mention of the issue after her diagnosis or when police attended their home months earlier.
Points of law
The Court considered several points of law, including how to evaluate the available evidence. The judgement outlines that, generally, criminal law is not an appropriate tool where a person understands the risk; has as much control of the risk as the other party; consents to the act causing injury; and is injured as a result. These factors are comparable to a person deciding to have condomless sex with a partner they know has HIV, knowing that doing so can transmit HIV, with HIV transmission resulting.
Consequently, the Court found that instead of needing to focus legal analysis on the ‘presumption of innocence’ in relation to the accused, the appropriate principle to be tested was dubio pro reo, which tests whether ‘a credible doubt arises as to the veracity of the assertion of facts’. This principle means that, if ambiguity is found, the matter should be resolved in favour of the more lenient finding.
Ultimately, the court dismissed the charges of aggravated injury as the court found there was “a reasonable doubt as to the ignorance of the woman about the health status” of her ex-partner. The decision suggests that the woman could have deduced or may have known her partner had HIV.
Acknowledgement: Thank you to Miguel Angel Ramiro Avilés for making his analysis of the court decision so promptly available to HJN.
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