Legal Aid Ontario will honour HIV/AIDS legal activist Ryan Peck with the Sidney B. Linden Award at a ceremony Feb. 23 at Osgoode Hall, in recognition of his commitment to helping low-income Ontarians in the pursuit of access to justice.
The award is named in honour of Legal Aid Ontario’s first board chair, Justice Sidney B. Linden, who has been involved with legal aid for over 35 years. Since its inception, the award has been presented to eight deserving recipients.
The Toronto lawyer and the executive director of HIV & Aids Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO) told The CJN he was surprised to be chosen for the award.
“I went to law school because I was interested in issues surrounding social and economic justice, and I have devoted my career to those issues,” he said.
“My families on both sides are [descended] from Holocaust survivors, so from as long as I can remember, I was aware of the importance of minority rights. I was very aware of how vital it is to fight discrimination against everybody. It’s in my bones,” Peck said.
Peck, 43, grew up in Toronto, graduating from University of Toronto’s faculty of law in 2000. He articled at HALCO, and after being called to the bar in 2002, he worked in legal aid clinics and as a duty counsel before being named HALCO’s executive director in 2007.
HALCO is the only legal clinic in the country that provides services exclusively to people with HIV/AIDS. Peck has worked to further its mandate of advancing the rights of people living with HIV and of using the legal system to reduce the discrimination, stigma and poverty they face.
There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, but in recent years, it has become a chronic manageable illness for those with access to effective treatment.
“People who are newly diagnosed have more or less the same lifespans as someone who is HIV negative. This is beautiful news,” Peck said.
Legal needs of the HIV/AIDS community include wills and estates, immigration, tenancy and social assistance, health and private law issues, employment, criminal injustice compensation, civil litigation, and consumer and debt issues.
Due to stigma and discrimination, they also often need advice on human rights and privacy law.
HALCO and other specialized clinics like it focus “both on front-line work, such as direct legal services for people, in addition to public legal education, law reform and community development initiatives,” Peck said.
“The other key feature is that we are community-based. What that means is each clinic, although part of a broader system, is an independent not-for-profit-organization,” he added.
“Our bylaws make it clear that the majority of the nine-person board of directors must be people living with HIV. We are embedded in the community, and people with HIV who are most affected are at the centre of the clinic.
“I find it a very welcoming, dedicated, and rigorous community to be part of. HIV brings together sexual orientation, race, social economic status, sex, drugs, health and human rights. It’s a flashpoint for many different things,” Peck said.
Peck is a member of the Ontario Advisory Committee on HIV/AIDS, which provides social and health policy advice to the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. He’s also served as co-chair for the Ontario Working Group on Criminal Law and HIV Exposure since 2008, the same year he joined the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s board of directors.
In the last five years, Peck has delivered more than 170 public education workshops to audiences throughout Ontario. He has also played a key role in pushing the Ministry of the Attorney General to develop prosecutorial guidelines for Crown prosecutors handling allegations of HIV non-disclosure, as co-chair of the Ontario Working Group on Criminal Law and HIV Exposure.
More recently, he spearheaded HALCO’s engagement in TRANSforming Justice, a community-based project exploring the legal needs of transgendered Ontarians.
“I look forward to the day when there is a cure [for HIV/AIDS], and people living with HIV/AIDS no longer face stigma and discrimination,” Peck said