Victoria’s Human Services department could face a class action by a group of men who claim they were deliberately infected with HIV by a man with whom they had unprotected sex.

The Victorian Department of Human Services allegedly received complaints in 2001 that Michael John Neal, a 47-year-old grandfather, was intentionally spreading HIV but did not report or detain him.

Now a Melbourne lawyer believes the department could be liable for compensation to the victims.

Neal is in custody facing 44 charges relating to 16 men, including intentionally infecting others with HIV, attempting to infect others with HIV, and rape.

Originally only five men contacted police and alleged they had sexual contact with Neal. A further 11 emerged last week, and police sources have revealed there were several others who were not prepared to give formal statements.

Neal faced Melbourne Magistrates Court on Friday via video link from Port Phillip Prison to face a range of charges, including possession and manufacture of child pornography.

Bernard Murphy, chairman of Australia’s largest class action legal practice, Maurice Blackburn Cashman, said the Department of Human Services should have exercised its own powers to detain Neal.

Section 121 of the Health Act provides the department -¦ with power to detain a person who the department reasonably believes is infected with an infectious disease, Murphy told ABC Radio.

If the health department knew that there was a man who was deliberately infecting other men through sexual activity, I think it’s quite reasonable to expect the department to have used those powers.

The Department of Human Services has refused to comment on the matter.

The Victorian AIDS Council also declined to comment directly on the issue. When contacted by Sydney Star Observer, executive director Mike Kennedy would say only that gay men needed to take responsibility for their own sexual health and should not be relying on other people to do that for [them].

However, two months ago Kennedy told the Star mandatory reporting by the department was a really bad idea because in fact it would discourage people who were having some difficulty with practising consistent safe sex from seeking assistance from professionals about how they might better manage that.

Neal and some of the alleged victims were part of a group who attended sex-on-premises venues together. Neal is also alleged to have met men for sex at beats and via the internet.

The court heard Neal convinced men to have unprotected sex with him after telling them he was HIV-negative. One man who refused to have unprotected sex was allegedly drugged and raped.

Neal will face court again on 1 September.

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