Legal and ethical obligations

Your legal obligations as an employee and an HIV peer navigator can come from different sources:

  • criminal law defines the most serious things you must not do
  • civil law includes your obligation to do things you have agreed to do (contracts), and redress for things you do that cause injury to others (negligence, defamation)
  • privacy laws and policies
  • workplace/occupational health and safety (WHS/OHS) regulations and practices
  • requirements of insurance providers (e.g. public liability, professional indemnity)
  • anti-discrimination law (see next lesson)

These obligations vary in different states and territories so this topic is going to be fairly general in nature. You need to ask questions, seek out policy and procedures, and develop a general awareness of laws that apply to your work.

Often your obligations from different sources can interact. Documents like organisational policy and procedure are not laws in their own right, but you have agreed to follow them in your contract of employment, so you might be liable under civil law for breach of contract if you do not follow these policies and procedures.

Duty of care

Duty of care is a concept you will hear constantly in your work as an HIV peer navigator. It refers to your obligation not to cause a foreseeable risk of harm to a person to whom you owe a duty of care.

If you are working as an HIV peer navigator, you owe a duty of care to your clients, and you may owe a duty of care to contacts (e.g. community members who approach you for advice/assistance).

Remaining within your scope of practice is a key aspect of fulfilling your duty of care, because you are more likely to place someone at risk of harm if you are providing care without the appropriate skills and training.

Risks and harms do arise in community services work. For instance, giving someone advice about harm reduction for the use of drugs involves the risk that they don’t apply the advice correctly, and that harm might occur as a result.

When this occurs, you have a duty of care to help the client minimise the harm and avoid the risk in future. It is also important to let your manager/supervisor know when this has occurred, for two reasons.

First, there may be an opportunity to do things differently in future, lowering the risk/harm to that client or other clients. Second, it may affect the organisation’s liability to that person under civil law, or its obligations under other laws.

Ethical obligations

Ethical obligations are often defined in statements of principles that must be followed by people in particular professions. Professions can include doctors, lawyers, and researchers. However, HIV peer navigation is not a profession (unless you have additional training, such as social work). So we need to use reflective practice and dialogue with our colleagues and supervisors to identify the principles that apply to our work.

One key source of ethical issues in HIV peer navigation practice is the inevitable power imbalance between a care provider and a person who is receiving care. This creates a conflict with the expectation that peers are equals. Sometimes a peer navigator may use power to benefit the client, for example, when we advocate on their behalf. Other times, we might use power to make our lives easier, e.g. pushing a client who isn’t ready into agreeing to a decision. Constant reflection on your use of power is important.


What are some examples of ethical principles that could apply to your work as an HIV peer navigator?

  • For example, we might list respect for human rights and respect for diversity as principles.

Could there be legal consequences if you breach one of these ethical principles?

  • Is there any legislation that covers human rights and respect for diversity?
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