Appeal Court Upholds Decision Finding Man with HIV Guilty of Aggravated Sexual Assault

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

An HIV-positive man had his aggravated sexual assault conviction upheld by the Ontario Court of Appeal.

In October 2013, the man, identified as N.G., had been advised to tell prospective partners that he was HIV-positive.  He proceeded to have sex repeatedly with three women over several months and failed to inform them of his medical history.

N.G. was charged with multiple offences occurring between July 2013 and April 2014, including three counts of aggravated sexual assault.  At the trial, the question was whether N.G.’s failure to disclose his HIV status prior to intercourse constituted fraud and made the women’s consent ineffective. 

On November 19, 2017, Superior Court Justice Edward Gareau convicted and sentenced N.G. to three and a half years in prison.  N.G. appealed his conviction and sought to introduce fresh evidence to prove that the use of a condom alone prevents the possibility of transmission of HIV during sexual intercourse. 

APPEAL COURT ASKED TO RULE THAT CONDOM USE IS ENOUGH TO PREVENT THE TRANSMISSION OF HIV

N.G. asked the appeal court to resolve the issue as to whether, at law, the use of a condom alone is enough to remove HIV non-disclosure cases from being criminally prosecuted.

The leading 2012 Supreme Court of Canada case, R. v. Mabior, provides the legal threshold triggering a duty to disclose.

This case holds that an accused may be found guilty of aggravated sexual assault if he or she fails to disclose an HIV-positive status to a sexual partner in the case when consent to the sexual activity would not have been given had the partner known about the HIV-positive status and there is a realistic possibility of transmission of HIV during the sexual activity.  The Supreme Court of Canada held that a realistic possibility of HIV transmission is negated when both the non-disclosing individual’s viral load (the quantity of HIV circulating in his or her blood) is low and a condom is used during sexual activity. 

In N.G.’s case, the trial judge held that condoms were not enough as he did not have a low viral load, therefore increasing the possibility of transmission even with the use of a contraceptive. 

At his appeal, N.G.’s lawyers argued that new evidence demonstrates that condoms are sufficient to prevent the transmission of HIV even in cases where an individual’s viral load is not low.  N.G. requested that the conviction be overturned and that the common law should reflect this new information.

The Appeal Court rejected N.G.’s arguments that the use of condoms alone are sufficient to prevent transmission of HIV.    

Justice Fairburn stated:

There is no dispute that a perfectly functioning latex condom provides a perfect barrier to HIV transmission.  … But, as the Supreme Court of Canada also understood,  condoms do not always work as they are intended to work.  …  Indeed, from time-to-time despite the very best intentions and efforts of sexual partners, condoms sometimes fail to work.

LAWMAKERS ARE CALLED UPON TO MAKE LEGISLATIVE CHANGES BASED ON SCIENCE AND END THE CRIMINALIZATION OF THOSE LIVING WITH HIV

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, an intervener on the appeal, is concerned about the stigma surrounding the HIV virus.  On behalf of N.G., this organization claimed that the offence of aggravated sexual assault and the penalty imposed were disproportionate in a case of consensual sexual activity and where an individual had taken all precautions to avoid transmission.

This organization maintains that scientific experts across Canada agree that HIV transmission is not possible while using a condom correctly during intercourse. 

In a statement on the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s website, the organization states:

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.  …  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 statement also mentions that in June of 2019, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights recognized a need for reforms to the Criminal Code limiting the prosecution of cases to only those dealing with HIV non-disclosure and the actual transmission of the disease.  To date, these changes have not been implemented.

We will continue to follow any developments in the case law or legislation with respect to the criminalization of individuals living with HIV and will report them in this blog.

In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding charges that have been laid against you or your legal rights, please contact the knowledgeable criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1047.  Our skilled criminal lawyers have significant experience defending a wide range of criminal charges and protecting their client’s rights.  For your convenience, we offer a 24-hour telephone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice.