It’s a conversation no-one wants to have with a prospective partner – but did you know that failing to disclose a sexually transmitted infection (STI) could land you in serious trouble with the law?
Offences under the Public Health Act
In New South Wales, section 79 of the Public Health Act 2010 says is titled ‘Duties of persons in relation to sexually transmissible diseases and conditions’.
Section 79(1) prescribes a maximum penalty of 6 months in prison and/or an $11,000 fine for any person who “who knows that he or she has a notifiable disease, or a scheduled medical condition, that is sexually transmissible” not to “take reasonable precautions against spreading the disease or condition.”
‘Notifiable diseases’ are listed in Schedule 2 of the Act, and include Syphilis and a range of diseases.
‘Scheduled medical conditions’ are listed in Schedule 1 of the Act, and include HIV, Gonorrhoea, Chlamydia, various categories of Hepatitis and a range of other conditions.
Section 79(2) sets down the same maximum penalty for an “owner or occupier of a building or place who knowingly permits another person to have sexual intercourse in contravention of subsection (1) at the building or place for the purpose of prostitution”.
Section 79(3) provides that ” person (other than a member of the NSW Health Service) must notify the Secretary… [of the Minister of Health] if the person commences proceedings against a person for an offence under…” section 79.
The offence of causing grievous bodily harm
People can also face severe penalties under the Crimes Act 1900 where they transmit serious STIs.
Section 33 of that Act states that a person who causes grievous bodily harm with intent to another person faces a maximum penalty of 25 years imprisonment. Where they do so recklessly, the maximum penalty is 10 years imprisonment.
‘Grievous bodily harm’ includes any permanent or serious disfiguring of a person. And although there is no list of what else amounts to grievous bodily harm”, the courts have found that the term means “really serious harm” and can include broken bones, damage to internal organs and serious psychological or physical illness – which can include serious STIs.
A UK man was recently charged with causing grievous bodily harm after he passed genital herpes on to his partner.
There is no known cure for genital herpes, which can cause outbreaks of painful genital sores throughout a person’s life, as well as suppressed immune functions. The symptoms can, however, be treated by daily medications.
28-year-old David Golding received a 14-month prison sentence for transmitting the infection, which he claimed was caught from a previous partner.
The sentencing judge was scathing of Golding’s conduct, finding that they ‘amounted to a betrayal,’ and that the infection ‘is at least or more serious than an injury leaving a scar because it carries continued recurrence, extreme discomfort and consequences for relationships which she will have in the future.’
Should we criminalise STI transmission?
Lawmakers have expressed the view that existing laws effectively encourage people who carry STIs to disclose the risk to their partners for fear of being penalised.
And while many agree with the judge’s opinion of Mr Golding’s, others, including the National Aids Trust, have expressed the view that criminalising the transmission of STIs could further stigmatise already vulnerable members of the community, including HIV sufferers.
They have suggested that the ‘knowledge’ requirement for STI offences may actually deter people from being tested in the first place; because they will only be guilty if they know about their infection.
Others believe that convicting people of ‘less serious’ STIs such as genital herpes will further stigmatise sufferers, making it harder for them to get jobs and advance themselves in the future.
But those voices seem to be in the minority, and the people behind them may not have been on the receiving end of an STI from a partner.
Going to court for a criminal offence?
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