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Punitive laws, public health and HIV/AIDS:

How research on criminal liability for HIV transmission and exposure has informed policy-makers, medical practitioners and others

Professor Weait’s research into the impact of punitive laws relating to HIV transmission and exposure and against people living with HIV and AIDS (PLHIV) has informed the development of policy on criminal liability for HIV transmission and exposure by UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the National AIDS Trust (NAT).

It has led directly to invitations to contribute at international policy fora as well as civil society and professional medical organisations. His research has been acknowledged judicially; has contributed to the UK Crown Prosecution Services’ guidelines on this issue; and involved knowledge transfer to, and consequent capacity enhancement of the activities of various interest and community groups.

Contribution at international policy fora:

  • Weait was invited to provide expert assistance to key international consultations organised by UNAIDS and UNDP, e.g. the 2011 Expert meeting on the scientific, medical, legal and human rights aspects of criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission, which united for the first time leading scientists and legal scholars/practitioners to discuss the latest medical and scientific developments regarding HIV and how these should impact on criminalisation of HIV nondisclosure, exposure and transmission.
  • Weait prepared two background papers Criminalisation of HIV Non-Disclosure, Exposure and Transmission: Background and Current Landscape and Criminalisation of HIV Non-Disclosure, Exposure and Transmission: Scientific, Medical, Legal and Human Rights Issues, providing information, evidence and analyses from which the meeting benefited.
  • The papers were also used in the February 2012 High Level Policy Consultation on Criminalisation of HIV Non-Disclosure, Exposure and Transmission.
  • As a member of the Technical Advisory Group for the Global Commission on HIV (UNDP/UNAIDS) Weait contributed the UNAIDS/UNDP Policy Brief on Criminalisation of HIV Transmission in 2008, by acting as an expert reviewer of several drafts and providing valuable input.

National AIDS Trust (NAT)

  • described Weait as the ‘leading UK academic’ with whom it collaborated over eight years, contributing specific research-led legal expertise to NAT and to the entire UK HIV sector.
  • highlighted Weait’s expertise on the use of behavioural orders, for those convicted of reckless HIV transmission.
  • used this expertise in submissions to the Sentencing Council and CPS, achieving a policy change in 2011 whereby CPS will no longer use behavioural orders against those convicted of reckless transmission, or only in very limited circumstances.

HIV forensics and use of phylogenetic analysis

Further, Weait’s contribution to a joint paper on HIV forensics and use of phylogenetic analysis identified how certain scientific evidence can and had been previously misinterpreted. This let to CPS acknowledgment of the inconclusiveness of phylogenetic analysis and forensic difficulties in proving HIV transmission; leading to an acquittal for HIV transmission in England; and the development of CPS nationwide policy guidance on future handling of such evidence. The evidential threshold was raised for cases to reach court, with a consequent reduction in the number of cases prosecuted. National AIDS Trust commented that the response of the UK HIV sector to criminalisation of HIV transmission is regarded as a model by UNAIDS and others due to its evidenced-based focus, training and education of HIV-sector professionals.


IPPF used Weait’s research extensively in their work on challenging criminalisation across the world. Weait

  • was a key contributor to IPPF’s 2010 campaign, and to Verdict on a Virus: Public Health, Human Rights and the Criminal Law (translated into three additional languages)
  • participated in the video advocacy resource Behind Bars
  • contributed to the school-based anti-stigma campaign Positive? Awareness of and attitudes to HIV 2011 distributed through the Department of Education
  • participated in international advocacy work in Sweden, and a Berlin Consultation in 2012, facilitating an advocacy session for civil society participants.

Recognition that research was relevant to stakeholders

Weait was invited to present his research findings to HIV in Europe conferences in Brussels (2007) and Stockholm (2009), to policy makers, health professionals and civil society representatives from various countries.

Inclusion in a significant work of reference by the leading global network representing PLHIV

Weait’s research is cited in GNP+’s Global Criminalisation Scan Report 2010: Documenting trends, presenting evidence (GNP+ 2010), an overview of the extent to which laws have been used to prosecute PLHIV for HIV transmission and exposure.

Inclusion (by others) in the body of knowledge of policy-makers

Weait’s research was cited in the 2002 UNAIDS policy options paper on Criminal Law, Public Health and HIV Transmission.

Judicial acknowledgement

Neal v The Queen [2011] VSCA 172 (15 June 2011) (Supreme Court of Victoria).

Recent Links

  • Weait quoted on Sweden's HIV Law in The Local, Sweden's News in English: 'Sweden's HIV sex law leaves country divided' (29 November 2013)
  • Video of a lecture given by Matthew Weait on his current research at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, as a guest of the Socio-Legal Studies Group on 4 December 2013 on 'What's the harm? Who's to blame?' This lecture explores, in comparative perspective but with a focus on English case law, the criminalisation of HIV. It focuses on the ways in which criminalisation provides more general insights into the construction of harm, responsibility and consent, especially with the progress made in treating and controlling HIV infection, and offers a critique of the law in this area.
  • Weait interviewed in the Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV witch-hunt documentary (at 42:22): a documentary about the criminalization of HIV. The story of a group of HIV-positive women who were detained by the Greek Police, forcibly tested, charged with a felony, imprisoned and publicly exposed, when their mug shots and personal data were published in the media, in the run-up to the country’s 2012 national elections.
  • Weait review: 'Rights and Wrongs', The Lancet Volume 382, Issue 9907, p. 1774, 30 November 2013. A review of Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV witch-hunt.