Ottawa launches public consultation on reforming the criminal law on HIV non-disclosure

By Cristin Schmitz

Last Updated: Monday, October 24, 2022 @ 3:57 PM

Law360 Canada (October 20, 2022, 4:45 PM EDT) -- The federal government has opened its promised public consultation to help develop a policy roadmap for reforming the criminal law on HIV non-disclosure.

After reading the newly posted consultation paper on HIV non-disclosure, lawyers and other members of the public are invited to share their views until Jan. 13, 2022, via an online survey.

“HIV is first and foremost a public health matter and non-disclosure of HIV status is a complex issue,” Justice Minister David Lametti said in an Oct. 20 announcement. “Our government recognizes that the criminalization of people living with HIV can lead to stigmatization and significant hardships. This is why we are consulting Canadians on the best approach to reform the criminal law regarding HIV non-disclosure. It will help us find solutions, and will lead to better outcomes for affected populations.”

Justice Minister David Lametti

The government estimates 63,000 people live with HIV in Canada and 10 per cent may be unaware of their status.

“HIV non-disclosure” refers to criminal cases where a person living with HIV, who is aware of their status and knows they are infectious, does not disclose their HIV status before otherwise consensual sexual activity that poses a realistic possibility of transmission.

Questions asked in the consultation paper include:

  • Whether charges under the Criminal Code’s sexual assault provisions are appropriate in HIV non-disclosure cases;
  • Whether an intention to transmit, or actual transmission, should be requirements for criminal charges to be laid;
  • Whether criminal law should apply in cases where an accused has taken precautions to protect their sexual partner(s) from transmission; and
  • Whether a new HIV, sexually transmitted infection (STI), or infectious-disease-specific offence should be created to address HIV non-disclosure cases.

Right now those living with HIV, who don’t disclose their status prior to sexual activity that poses a risk of transmission, can be charged with various offences, including aggravated sexual assault — the most serious sexual assault offence in the Criminal Code.

However, criminalization can lead to the stigmatization of people living with HIV, which can often discourage individuals from being tested or seeking treatment, the Department of Justice (DOJ) says in a press release.

The DOJ notes that there has been considerable progress made in treating HIV and in the scientific evidence on rates of transmissibility.

The consultation is among the Liberal government’s commitments in its 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan, launched last August. “Reforming the criminal law regarding HIV non-disclosure is an essential step in ensuring that Canadian justice policy advances the dignity and equality of 2SLGBTQI+ people,” the DOJ said.

In 2020, 1,639 newly diagnosed cases of HIV were reported in Canada, with most receiving appropriate treatment, the government noted.

On Dec. 1, 2017, the DOJ published a report, the Criminal Justice System’s Response to Non-Disclosure of HIV, that included a summary of the scientific evidence on sexual transmission of HIV and that was produced by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

On Dec. 8, 2018, the Attorney General of Canada also issued a directive related to the prosecution of HIV non-disclosure cases under federal jurisdiction which specifies, among other things, that prosecutions should not occur when an individual takes appropriate measures to prevent transmission of HIV (such as taking appropriate treatment to maintain a suppressed viral load), and that prosecutors must consider whether criminal charges are in the public interest.

Justice Minister David Lametti photo from Department of Justice.

Correction: Due to an error in a Department of Justice (DOJ) press release, the original version of this story stated that the last date for the public to participate in a DOJ consultation on Reforming the Criminal Law Regarding HIV Non-disclosure was Nov. 20. DOJ says the correct date is Jan. 13, 2023.

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