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People living with and at risk of acquiring HIV in Northern Ireland deserve equal protection from discrimination

Adam Freedman

By Adam Freedman

The UK should be proud of much of our equality legislation, which is designed to protect individuals from discrimination. At National AIDS Trust we use equality laws every day to fight for dignity and respect for those at risk of discrimination, including HIV discrimination, and see firsthand the enormous importance of these legal protections. 

However, these laws do not apply equally throughout the whole of the UK. People at risk of discrimination in Northern Ireland have been left behind with weaker laws for far too long, and people living with and at risk of acquiring HIV are one of many groups that are detrimentally affected.

For example, we have recently been supporting an individual who takes PrEP in Northern Ireland who was subjected to unnecessary medical monitoring because it was perceived that they might be living with HIV by their employer. This conduct would be considered discriminatory in the rest of the UK but is currently not in Northern Ireland.

This difference in the law means that the affected individual does not have the opportunity to bring a legal case to get justice for the discrimination they have experienced. This is not only frustrating and upsetting for them, but also delegitimises the HIV-related discrimination that they have experienced.

These weaker protections are having a negative real-world impact – and National AIDS Trust are calling on Nothern Ireland’s legislators to amend disability discrimination legislation to make more incidents of HIV discrimination illegal.


What does Northern Ireland’s equality law currently look like compared with the rest of the UK?

In England, Scotland and Wales, people living with and at risk of acquiring HIV are protected by the Equality Act 2010. This comprehensive piece of legislation protects people from discrimination, harassment and other unfavourable treatment related to “protected characteristics” (specific personal attributes or characteristics). People living with HIV fall under the protected characteristic of “disability”, meaning that they are protected by the parts of the Equality Act that relate to disability discrimination.

The wording of the Equality Act protects people from discrimination even if they are perceived to have HIV or are associated with someone living with HIV, such as being a relative. This enhanced protection against discrimination is simply not available in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s disability discrimination legislation is currently underpinned by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. This legislation has not been updated in any form since 2006. This is because Northern Ireland has devolved responsibility for “equality of opportunity”, meaning that the Northern Ireland Assembly is responsible for passing anti-discrimination legislation, rather than the UK Parliament.


Why have Northern Ireland’s laws not kept pace with the rest of the UK?

Whilst the UK Parliament legislated the Equality Act back in 2010, Northern Ireland has not passed comparable legislation in the intervening 14 years.

Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions are structured so that they will only function when there is cross-community support from political parties across the political divides. Unfortunately, this has meant that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have not sat for years at a time, most recently between 2022 and 2024. When the institutions have sat, legislating changes to equality law has not been a priority.


What National AIDS Trust believes must be done to update Northern Ireland’s laws, and what we’re doing about it:

To bring legal protections against disability discrimination for people living in Northern Ireland to the same level as those for everyone else in the UK, we believe that the following fundamental changes are needed, among several others:

  1. Ensuring legislation protects against disability-related harassment in all settings, such as in private services like tattoo parlours, cosmetic surgery clinics and piercing shops. At present, protection against harassment based on HIV status only exists in employment and further/higher education settings in Northern Ireland.
  2. Establishing protections for individuals who experience discrimination because they are perceived to have a disability such as HIV, or because they are associated with a person living with HIV.
  3. Making pre-employment questionnaires illegal. These questionnaires ask questions about a person’s disability before they are offered a role in a job application process and regularly lead to discrimination.

With devolved government newly restored, there is an opportunity for the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to make the right decisions and legislate to strengthen their equality laws. This is imperative so that people living with, or at risk of acquiring HIV, in Northern Ireland can have the same rights and protections as everyone across the UK.

National AIDS Trust, working together with partners in Northern Ireland, is calling on legislators at Stormont to make these changes to the law a priority. It is vital that we all work together to ensure everyone living in all nations of the UK are protected from HIV discrimination.

Mar 11, 2024 By santi.agra