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Judge’s HIV comments ‘unacceptable’

HIV-positive witness asked to wear a mask in court

Legal groups have launched a complaint against an Ontario judge who demanded a witness who is HIV-positive and living with hepatitis C wear a mask while testifying in court.

In a Nov 23 trial proceeding, Barrie judge Jon-Jo Douglas ordered that the witness be masked or testify electronically from another courtroom. When the judge was advised by the Crown attorney that HIV and hepatitis C can only be transferred through contact with certain bodily fluids, Douglas rejected this well-established fact.

“The HIV virus will live in a dried state for year after year after year and only needs moisture to reactivate itself,” said Douglas, according to court transcripts obtained by the Toronto Star.

Legal groups responded Jan 17 with a complaint to the Ontario Judicial Council. “Such shockingly discriminatory thinking and practice by a judge and courtroom staff is unacceptable and falls below minimum standards of conduct,” reads the letter, signed by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic (Ontario).

The two organizations are calling for an investigation into the judge’s conduct, as well as a broader response to address HIV-related prejudice in Canadian courtrooms.

The groups are also concerned that the Superior Court of Justice allowed the judge’s conduct to pass with little comment. The Crown attorney asked for a mistrial to be declared based on the treatment of the witness, but Douglas refused. When the Crown appealed to a higher court, the Superior Court of Justice dismissed the request for a mistrial, stating that the judge had the “jurisdictional right to conduct safety precautions in the courtroom.”

The trial centered on a man charged with sexually assaulting an inmate at an Ontario provincial jail. According to the Toronto Star, the alleged victim testified he was HIV-positive and had hepatitis C. When the court resumed after lunch, the judge made his comments about the witness’ health.

The trial was adjourned, and a new date is set for Feb 14.