Accessing Legal Support

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2019

There are a variety of reasons that an individual with HIV may need legal services. Some of these may be related directly to their HIV, while others may be unrelated.

Why might someone with HIV need legal services

HIV-specific reasons for needing legal support include, but are not limited to:

  • Issues surrounding HIV in the workplace, such as disclosing HIV-related medications or status
  • Issues surrounding HIV and privacy rights
  • Navigation of HIV-related criminalization laws (laws making certain behaviors illegal if there is a real or perceived exposure to HIV. These vary state to state.)
  • Discrimination, including, but not limited to, housing, health care, employment, and education discrimination against an individual with HIV
  • Family support services or issues around guardianship of children
  • Creation of living wills and designation or health care proxies (individuals who can make decisions if you are unable to)
  • Testing for HIV without consent
  • Interpersonal violence or domestic disputes
  • Navigating HIV-specific laws in each state (laws surrounding behaviors that could transmit HIV)1-3

HIV criminalization laws

Since HIV can be transmitted via sexual or blood-to-blood contact (such as during rough sex) many states have laws that require individuals living with HIV to disclose their status to current sex partners, and alert past partners of their status as soon as they become aware they have HIV (the same is true for current and former drug-injecting partners).4,5

A complete list of each state’s HIV-related laws can be found within The Center for HIV Law and Policy’s State HIV Law database. Additionally, a list of all states with HIV- and STI-specific (sexually transmitted infections, of which HIV is one) laws has been published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although many aspects of disclosing your status are up to you, if you live in an area where these laws are present, disclosure to sex partners (or drug-injecting partners) may be required.4 However, in most locations, there are services available that can help you remain anonymous in these situations or disclose for you if need be.

Where can I report concerns?

In the United States, there are several federal laws designed to protect individuals living with HIV from discrimination. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 both protect individuals from HIV-related discrimination. The ADA focuses more on discrimination within the workplace or within state and local organizations, while Section 504 focuses on health and human services. HIV-related discrimination means that an individual has been prevented from participating in a service or denied a benefit based on their HIV-positive status. Additionally, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) has a Privacy Rule that protects the privacy and integrity of your medical records and health information.5

If you feel as though your health information privacy has been violated, you can report a HIPAA violation to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights. You can also file civil rights complaints, religious freedom complaints, and more through this office. If you feel you have been discriminated in the workplace or by a government or public institution, you can report this violation to the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.5

How do I find legal support?

Legal support is often expensive and may be hard to find. However, there are some options you can try in order to find representation at a low-cost or for free. One option is to find a law school in your area. Many law schools have student organizations in which lawyers-in-training or newly graduated lawyers give legal advice and support for free or at a low-cost. Some schools have a strong commitment to serving their community in this way and may be a great place to check for assistance.

Additionally, if you are a student yourself, including both undergraduate and graduate students (and beyond), consult your student affairs office or other similar administration departments to find out if your school has a legal department or covers legal services. Some schools build in a legal fee into your tuition and students have access to a lawyer who can advise them in certain situations.

Your healthcare provider or a member of their staff may also be able to recommend resources. Many cities and communities have legal organizations dedicated to providing support to those in need, and some are even HIV-specific. If you’re unsure where to start looking for these, your provider, or a social worker in their clinic, may be able to connect you with community resources.

The CDC also has two support phone lines that can be called in order to provide confidential HIV/AIDS-related information, including connections to legal services. The first of these is the CDC INFO line, which can be reached anytime at 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636). The second is the CDC National Prevention Information Network (NPIN), which can be reached at 800-458-5231. State-specific hotlines can also be called and found within the Health Resources and Services Administration’s State HIV/AIDS hotline resource. You can also find information on the HIV-related laws in your state by searching the The Center for HIV Law and Policy’s HIV Policy Resource Bank or their database on current state-specific laws. Some states have laws surrounding behaviors that could transmit HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which individuals with HIV may need help navigating.

Coping with legal issues

Seeking outside support, such as from a therapist or other mental health professional, may be helpful in navigating legal action or issues and the overwhelming feelings that can come along with them. Seeking support to maintain a strong mental health is never a bad idea, no matter what you’re going through, but may be critical when faced with complicated and complex legal concerns or issues. A mental health professional may also be able to point you in the direction of specific legal support outside of your relationship with them as well.

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