Citation: AIR 1999 SC 495
Bench: S. Saghir Ahmad and B.N. Kirpal
Mr. X, the Appellant, was about to get married when it was found that he was living with HIV. The marriage was called off on the ground of blood test conducted at the respondent’s hospital in which the appellant was found to be HIV positive As members of the Appellant’s family and community came to know of his HIV status, he was ostracized from the community. He eventually had to leave the state and relocate to another city.
The Appellant consequently approached the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission (NCDRC) to claim damages against the Respondent Hospital. The Appellant contended that the Respondent had illegally disclosed his medical information and breached their duty to keep information about patients confidential. NCDRC, however, dismissed the petition stating that the remedy for such a dispute would be in civil court.
The Appellant then filed the appeal in the Supreme Court arguing that the ‘duty of care’ applicable to those in the medical profession included the ‘duty to maintain confidentiality’. It was further argued that since the duty was breached the Respondent were liable to pay damages.
- Whether the doctors can carve out an exception and disclose their patient’s confidential information in certain situations?
- Whether the spouse of an HIV patient has the right to know about his/her HIV AID status?
To address the issue regarding the duty to maintain confidentiality, the Court placed reliance on the Code of Medical Ethics (the Code) formulated by the Indian Medical Council. It held that the medical profession did have a duty to not disclose the secrets of a patient that have been learnt in the exercise of profession. The Court, however, held that the doctor’s duty to maintain confidentiality did not confer an absolute right on the patient. It held that in public interest and in cases where the duty to maintain confidentiality could result in a health risk to another, this duty would not be binding on the doctor. The Court, therefore, held that since the marriage posed a health risk to the woman the doctor was not bound by the duty to maintain confidentiality.
As to whether divulging his medical record violated the Appellant’s right to privacy, the Court held that though the right to privacy was part of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution, it was not an absolute right. The Court held that to prevent crime and to protect public health and morals the right to privacy and the correlating duty to maintain confidentiality would be suspended. It therefore held that disclosing the HIV status of the Appellant to the intended wife did not violate his right to privacy.
Though the issue of a right to marry was not raised by the parties, the Court nevertheless held that such a right was not absolute. It held that in cases of right to marry, the right to marry and the correlated duty to disclose facts that could affect the marriage or the spouse lay in the same person. The Court, further, placed reliance on various marriage laws to state that infection with venereal disease was a ground for divorce and therefore each partner had the moral and legal duty to inform the intended spouse of any such disease that they might be infected with. The Court also placed reliance on the Indian Penal Code, 1860 to hold that if a person knowingly acted in a way that he knew was likely to spread the disease, such a person would be guilty of an offence.
Regarding the relation between the rights of the Appellant and the rights of his intended spouse, the Court held that her right to life in such a case would include her right to be informed of the Appellant’s HIV status. The Court also held that in any case when fundamental rights of two people conflicted with each other, the right which would promote public health and morality should be advanced.
The Court therefore held that though people living with HIV are entitled to all respects as human beings, sex with them or its possibility had to be avoided to prevent other people from being infected.
After the judgement, a coalition of activists filed a petition before the Supreme Court to set forth the exact parameters in the decision, following which a three-judge panel decided the matter again in 2002. They clarified that the Court correctly held the privacy rights of X with HIV, in that case, were not violated as a far as revealing his HIV positive status to the relatives of his fiancé is concerned. The court while discarded the rest of the decision, including the section on marriage rights for people with HIV as “unnecessary” and “uncalled for” held that earlier the judges had erred in their judgment by deciding on the matters irrelevant to the matter before them.
As it stands today, the 2002 clarification can be read to understand that the HIV patient’s right to marriage is not suspended and can marry with the informed consent of the other spouse. Moreover, the ruling in this matter has been incorporated as a provision in the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Act, 2017.