Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Monday, 8 October 2012

On the (de-)criminalization of HIV transmission

The recent judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of R v Mabior raises some interesting issues about the criminalization of HIV transmission. The case involved a man who was charged with nine charges of aggravated sexual assault under the Canadian Criminal Code for failure to disclose his HIV status to his sexual partners. In this case none of these sexual partners contracted HIV. There was also evidence either that a condom had been used, or that as the man was using retroviral drugs, his viral load was low and there was accordingly a low risk of transmission of the virus. The case accordingly concerned the questions of the degree of risk required to constitute the crime, and of the kind of risk might or might not be consented to and the sort of information that was necessary to make consent real.

He was initially convicted of aggravated assault, but on appeal the convictions were negated on the grounds that the low risk of transmission could mean that the offence had not been committed. The Crown appealed against this and the Supreme Court restored the convictions in four of the cases -where in spite of the low risk of transmission the complainants had testified that had they known of Mabior's HIV status they would not have had sex with him.

The case had been regarded as an important opportunity to reframe Canadian law on this issue. There was evidence to suggest that the level of prosecutions for this offence in Canada was high, and an unease about treating this as a serious life endangering offence in an era where improved drug treatment limited the impact of transmission. It is harder to argue that HIV is life endangering, at least in Canada and other western countries where the availability of retroviral drugs means that the illness can be managed. There was thus an argument that the offence had been drawn on overly broad terms, given its seriousness, and for limiting the role of the criminal law in this area.

The basic Canadian law in this area was established in the case of Cuerrier in 1998In this case the Supreme Court ruled that failure to disclose that one has HIV could constitute fraud vitiating consent to sexual relations under s. 265(3)(c) of the Canadian Criminal Code and amount to aggravated sexual assault (s.273). (This, I should add, is already a stretch. Section 265 talks about applying force to another, and aggravated sexual assault is defined in terms of wounding, maiming, disfiguring or endangering the life of another - none of which are terms that easily fit in this area). So, in order to establish a conviction, the Crown must show a dishonest act which affected the ability of the complainant to consent (lying about the one's HIV status) and that this endangered life.

The decision in Mabior does not change the basic law in this area - an intentional failure to disclose HIV status can still amount to aggravated sexual assault - but it does try to clarify the circumstances under which discloure of HIV status might be necessary. For the sake of simplicity, the new test can be understood as comprising an objective and a subjective element. Objectively the Court states that in order for it to be necessary to disclose your HIV status there must be a 'significant risk' of transmission. Accordingly, where the risk of transmission is low it may not be necessary to inform prospective sexual partners of your HIV status (though the judgment is somewhat vague here as to whether it is also necessary to use a condom). In the subjective part of the test (which is not so clearly expressed) the Court seems to indicate that consent should be informed - that sexual partners should have the information necessary to enable them to make and informed decision as to consent.

But is always necessary to use one?
And here we see the problem. While the Court is to be applauded for attempting to restrict the scope of the offence in the objective part, because it is not possible (as they acknowledge) to define the exact level of risk at which disclosure is not required, a lot will then depend on the subjective part of the test. But it is not clear this will limit the offence. In the appeal the convictions were restored because the complainants testified that they would not have slept with him even given the negligible risk of transmission if they had known of his HIV status. The scope of the offence thus depends on the fears of potential victims, apparently even if these are unreasonable - and the laudable aspiration to protect informed consent can quickly collapse into uninformed prejudice. A proper test in this area must be based on something more objective.

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