Aids sufferers living in fear of losing jobs

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The Independent Online
Aids and HIV sufferers who are discriminated against at work are refusing to take their employers to court because of fears of being identified and failures in the legal system, a study suggests.

There is also evidence that some lawyers are reluctant to represent people with Aids.

Early results from a study of attitudes and treatment of Aids sufferers reveals widespread discrimination that includes reports of sufferers being sacked and hounded out of their jobs because of their condition.

The problems of discrimination at work received worldwide publicity through the film Philadelphia, which starred Tom Hanks as a successful gay lawyer who was sacked after his boss discovered he had Aids. He then had difficulty in obtaining a lawyer to fight the case in court - which he eventually won.

The new information comes from a European Commission-funded study of how people with Aids and HIV are being treated by the legal system in England and Wales, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Norway, France and the Netherlands. The project began in 1995 but questionnaires to Aids sufferers and legal aid lawyers are only just being sent out. In England and Wales 10,000 legal aid firms are being contacted and thousands of people with HIV or Aids. They are being asked their experiences of the legal system when dealing with cases of discrimination.

Professor Avrom Sherr of the Institute of Advance Legal Studies, a UK co-ordinator of the survey, said: "Some of the reports are heartbreaking. We have had people whose lives have been devastated because of their treatment at work and the reaction from colleagues they thought were trusted friends."

He added that early evidence shows that one of the major reasons men and women who are discriminated against fail to take legal action is the fear of being named in court. There is no right to anonymity.

Warnings given by health care professionals also appear to reinforce this concern of being stigmatised and made unemployable in future.

Potential litigants are also put off by the length of time a case can take to come to court. Professor Sherr said: "The time factor is a major issue. People feel the energy and effort needed to fight a case is not worth it, particularly if they believe they have not long to live. They believe a legal battle will effect their mental and physical health."

He added: "Even Aids rights activists seem reluctant to go to court. The study will consider what aspects of the law and legal services are preventing more people coming forward."

There have been some reports of lawyers discriminating against people with Aids.

Professor Sherr concluded: "Very few cases of discrimination are going to the courts. There must be many that are actionable. We want to encourage more people to come forward to obtain legal services and to end discrimination against Aids and HIV sufferers."