Canada's top court lifts restrictions on prostitution

Canada's top court lifts restrictions on prostitution
Canada’s Supreme Court struck down three of the country’s anti-prostitution laws on Friday, including bans on brothels and street solicitation, finding that they violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and violated sex workers’ safety.

The unanimous 9 to 0 decision will go into effect in one year, allowing Parliament to provide other avenues to regulate sex work.

Prostitution is not illegal in Canada, though it has been deemed against the law to live off the avails of another’s prostitution, as was street soliciting and operation of brothels. Opponents of the laws said they created a dangerous climate for sex workers. The court found these restrictions were too broad and disproportionate to the law’s goals.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said a law banning “safe havens” for sex workers - who often did not have a choice but to work in the sex trade - puts them in danger.

"The impugned laws deprive people engaged in a risky, but legal, activity of the means to protect themselves against those risks," she wrote. "It makes no difference that the conduct of pimps and johns is the immediate source of the harms suffered by prostitutes."

One current prostitute and two former sex workers spurred the challenge, saying such work would be safer if they were allowed to screen clients and operate in brothels with bodyguards.

One of the plaintiffs, former dominatrix Terri Bedford, said the decision was a “great day for Canada, for Canadian women from coast to coast,” according to Reuters. Another plaintiff, Valerie Scott, said the ruling humanizes those in the sex trade.

Valerie Scott (C), one of three current and former sex workers who initiated a challenge to Canada's prostitution laws, reacts while reading a copy of the ruling at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa December 20, 2013. (Reuters / Chris Wattie)

Supporter of the restrictions Janine Benedet, who argued in court for the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, called on Parliament to make pimping and buying of sex illegal. “There is no constitutional right to buy a woman for sex.”

Chief Justice McLachlin rejected the government’s argument that it is not the laws that regulate sex work that puts prostitutes at risk, but rather prostitution itself.

Reffering to a high-profile trial and 2007 conviction of serial killer Robert Pickton, who sought out prostitutes and other women in Vancouver as his victims, McLachlin wrote, "A law that prevents street prostitutes from resorting to safe havens...while a suspected serial killer prowls the streets, is a law that has lost sight of its purpose.”

Though legal prostitution is common in much of Europe and South America, the issue of human trafficking has caused some countries to reanalyze laws governing the sex trade. France is considering a law that applies stiff fines on clients, for instance.

"How prostitution is regulated is a matter of great public concern, and few countries leave it entirely unregulated," McLachlin wrote.

She suggested Parliament has the opportunity to adjust laws on aspects of sex work that often intersect.

"Greater latitude in one measure - for example, permitting prostitutes to obtain the assistance of security personnel - might impact on the constitutionality of another measure - for example, forbidding the nuisances associated with keeping a bawdy house (brothel)."

Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay responded with concern over the ruling, saying that the government was "exploring all possible options to ensure the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to communities, those engaged in prostitution, and vulnerable persons."

Evangelical Fellowship of Canada lawyer Don Hutchinson urged Parliament to adopt models of Sweden and Norway, which criminalized the purchase of sex and of pimping, saying there is evidence that the decriminalization of prostitution increases human trafficking.