The reasons for judgment by the Supreme Court of Canada on the appeal in Mabior (2012 SCC 47) fail to address or resolve a number of significant questions. The reasons acknowledge the fundamental role of sexual consent in protecting sexual autonomy, equality, and human dignity, but do not use the law of consent as a tool to assist the Court in crafting a fresh approach to the issue on appeal. Instead the Court adopts the same general approach to analysis of the elements of aggravated sexual assault committed by fraud it used in 1998 in Cuerrier. Fifteen years later, it should be possible to re-conceptualize the problem in a more straightforward manner that reflects Charter values, fundamental common law principles, recent developments in sexual assault law, and the limitations and uncertainties of current HIV treatment and diagnosis.
Ironically, the two pronged legal test ultimately proposed by the Court -- non-disclosure of HIV-positive status and a “realistic possibility of transmission,” is likely to give false confidence to individuals who adhere to a regime of anti-retroviral treatment, use good quality latex condoms, and routinely conceal their HIV-positive status from their sexual partners. Research shows that HIV viral loads fluctuate widely in response to a myriad of factors. An inevitable consequence of reliance on the Mabior test will be accused who are shocked to find themselves charged under s. 273, charges that would not apply had they disclosed their HIV-positive status to their sexual partner(s). There are further practical consequences. Non-disclosure will tend to increase the risk of transmission because non-HIV-positive sexual partner(s) will not fully appreciate the actual hazards of improper condom use. As a direct result, careless sexual practices will be more common. And finally, the decision will not contribute to reducing the social stigma that haunts the lives of those who are HIV-positive -- even those who are skilled at deceit. That stigma will not be reduced or eliminated by a ruling that can be seen as tacitly validating stigmatization and fear by appearing to permit infected individuals to pretend they are not HIV-positive when they know or suspect this to be false. Deceit harms the human dignity of the deceived and deceiver alike, and does nothing to build authentic social trust and cohesion. For all these reasons, the problem on appeal in Mabior requires a different approach. This article proposes one.