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HIV-related stigma, ignorance and discrimination is still rife in the UK. Those living with HIV continue to face barriers to living a full and enjoyable life. Individuals have spoken out about the discrimination they face, explaining how they are often refused tattoos, piercings or other cosmetic treatments on the sole basis that they are HIV positive. However, such a refusal is based merely on the stigma associated with HIV and a complete misunderstanding of HIV transmission, rather than hard evidence. New Guidelines have been established by five HIV pressure groups in a bid to raise awareness and tackle the stigma around HIV.

Is it illegal to refuse to tattoo an individual who has contracted HIV?

Refusing to tattoo an individual because they are HIV positive is discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. A person with HIV is protected under the category of disability, which can be found under Section 6 of the Act. In terms of Section 6, a person is disabled if:

  • they have a physical or mental impairment; and
  • that impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

This is a wide definition in itself, however the Act goes further and explicitly states that an HIV infection is automatically deemed to be a disability.  Therefore, refusing to tattoo an individual because of their HIV status is illegal

Not only is refusing to tattoo an individual with HIV illegal, it is completely unnecessary. Those offering tattooing or other cosmetic services should be implementing standard precautions (such as the use of sterile needles or non-latex disposable gloves) when dealing with EVERY client in accordance with licensing requirements. In Scotland, licensing requirements were established by Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 (Licensing of Skin Piercing and Tattooing) Order 2006. The 2006 Order sets out a number of requirements which are aimed at reducing and/or removing risks to public health. Safe practices have been established to protect all parties, and the Order explicitly mentions the use of gloves to protect against HIV infection. Service providers need to be made aware that the infection control procedures already in place, such as the use of sterilised equipment, are sufficient enough to negate the risk of HIV infection. Service providers should therefore not ask clients on the client information forms if they are infected. You do not have to disclose your HIV status.

As the new Guidelines rightly state, service providers should treat every client as though they have an undiagnosed blood-borne virus or infection. The reason for this being that the majority of individuals living with HIV in the UK are on effective medication, meaning that the virus is not detectible in their blood. As a result, there is a very low risk of transmission through needle-stick injury. It therefore follows that those living with an undiagnosed blood-borne virus or HIV infection pose a much greater risk to service providers or other service users, than those with a diagnosis and in receipt of treatment.

Can such discrimination ever be justified?

In accordance with the 2010 Act, discrimination may be justified if the person discriminating against you can show that it was a proportionate means to achieving a legitimate aim. Service providers will argue that their refusal is based on a legitimate aim to protect staff and/or other clients from HIV transmission. However, outright refusal is not a proportionate response to achieving a legitimate aim, when the standard precautions already in place are built to protect all parties.
Local authorities should now issue full guidance to all licensed holders to ensure that no individual is subjected to discrimination solely as a result of their disability. It is welcoming to see that Aberdeenshire Council has already pledged to raise awareness and remind license holders of the relevant laws and universal precautions they must adhere to. It is hoped other Council’s follow suit.

Blog by Jodie Robertson, Trainee Solicitor

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