By Ryan Peck
“The full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all is an essential element in the global response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.”
UN General Assembly, Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS, 2 June 2006
Being diagnosed HIV-positive is overwhelming. Combined with the poverty, stigma and discrimination that it can bring, it can be downright devastating.
No other disease carries such significant legal, social, cultural and familial consequences. People living with HIV/AIDS are often isolated from friends, family and society. They can be denied health care, employment, and services. Disclosing HIV status can be traumatizing, even when done voluntarily.
In recent years, HIV has been transformed into a chronic manageable illness, at least for those with access to effective treatment. Also, the science surrounding transmission risks has improved greatly.
And yet, a 2012 study still found that:
- 16% of Canadians “feel afraid” of people living with HIV/AIDS.
- 18% would be somewhat or very uncomfortable working in an office with someone living with the illness.
- 23% would be uncomfortable shopping at a small neighborhood grocery store owned by someone living with HIV/AIDS.
- 35% would be somewhat or very uncomfortable if their child was attending a school where one of the students was known to be living with HIV/AIDS.
- 54% would be somewhat or very uncomfortable with a close friend or family member dating someone with HIV/AIDS.
Many people living with HIV/AIDS were, and still are, reluctant to approach mainstream service providers. Safer places to access community services are still necessary; places where HIV status can be disclosed without fear and where the complex reality of living with HIV/AIDS is understood. To this end, community organizations known as AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs) have been established in many communities across Ontario to provide HIV/AIDS related information and services.
The HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO) has been providing free legal services to people living with HIV/AIDS across Ontario since 1995.
HALCO was established to provide a safer place with the legal expertise neccesary to assist clients living with HIV/AIDS. Having access to these safer and specialized places continues to be vital to the physical, emotional and mental health of people living with HIV/AIDS, and to the overall HIV/AIDS response.
The legal needs of the HIV/AIDS community are varied; ranging from traditional poverty law matters to privacy, wills/estates and immigration matters. Tenancy and social assistance issues comprise almost 30% of HALCO’s intake, and immigration 16%.
Due to pervasive stigma and discrimination, members of the HIV/AIDS community also frequently seek human rights and privacy law advice. The clinic provides clients with legal information about HIV/AIDS non-disclosure criminal law matters, and assists private bar counsel in handling these matters. HALCO’s clients also have health and private insurance law issues, in addition to employment, criminal injuries compensation, prison, civil litigation and consumer/debt law needs.
Since 1995, the demand for HALCO’s services has continued to grow. The clinic provides free legal advice and brief services to anyone living with HIV/AIDS in Ontario. In addition, HALCO provides legal representation to people who meet its financial eligibility criteria or whose legal issue justifies making an exception.
HALCO is also actively engaged in law reform, public legal education and community development initiatives. The clinic handles approximately 4000 legal issues per year, and, since January 2012, has intervened in five Supreme Court of Canada matters.
HALCO looks forward to the day that our services are no longer needed; the day when people living with HIV/AIDS in Ontario no longer face stigma and discrimination; the day that HIV/AIDS infection is considered a serious illness like any other. Until that day arrives, HALCO will continue to work steadfastly to ensure that people living with HIV/AIDS are guaranteed their rights and freedoms.
For information about HALCO’s recent activities, please see the clinic’s most recent annual report.