Supreme Court strikes down anti-prostitution laws

Three laws governing prostitution in Canada were struck down by the Supreme Court on Friday, in a unanimous decision that found them to be unconstitutionally broad.

The Supreme Court of Canada voted 9-0 to throw out laws that make it illegal to keep a brothel, to live off the avails of prostitution and to solicit prostitution on the street.

Minister of Justice Peter MacKay responded to the Supreme Court ruling, stating he was concerned by the ruling and was considering how to respond.

"We are reviewing the decision and are 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," MacKay said in a statement.

"We are committed to the safety of all Canadians and the well-being of our communities. A number of other Criminal Code provisions remain in place to protect those engaged in prostitution and other vulnerable persons, and to address the negative effects prostitution has on communities."

The ruling was celebrated by members of the sex trade as a major victory for human rights.

"Great day for Canada, Canadian women coast to coast," dominatrix and former prostitute Terri-Jean Bedford told reporters after the ruling. "Now the government (cannot) tell Canadians what we can and cannot do in the privacy of our homes, for money or not. And they must write laws that are fair."

The government has been given one year to come up with a way to replace or amend the laws struck down on Friday. Advocates said they were looking for a solution that treated the sex trade like any other industry. Those in the business should have a role in establishing the new laws, some argued.

Supreme Court said the laws "do not merely impose conditions on how prostitutes operate. They go a critical step further, by imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky — but legal — activity from taking steps to protect themselves."

Prostitution itself is not illegal in Canada, although the set of laws that have now been struck down made it nearly impossible to navigate.

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Terri-Jean Bedford leaves the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa Friday morning.

The removal of the three current laws will mean that sex workers are allowed to legally perform their trade indoors and pay someone in a supportive or protectoral capacity.

Lawyer Alan Young argued that the current prostitution laws are rarely enforced and largely ineffective when they are. He told reporters that it is currently unclear how the government will respond.

"My role as a constitutional lawyer was to remove a bad law that has constitutional flaws to pave the way for the Government of Canada to come up with a new law," Young said. "All the relevant stakeholders on all sides of the debate must come forward and speak to the Government of Canada to finally get it right, if we are to do something about this."

The Supreme Court agreed to review the country's prostitution laws last year following an Ontario ruling that legalized brothels.

Bedford and two other women, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott argued that the Canadian laws make it dangerous for Canadian sex workers to conduct their business. "This is the first time in Canadian history that sex workers are truly persons, we are truly citizens of this country. And now we can work in our legal occupation in a legal manner," Scott told reporters Friday.

The question now is: What laws and amendments will the Canadian government implement to satisfy the courts? There was some immediate debate over the set of laws used in Sweden — known as the Nordic model — which criminalizes the demand for commercial sex but not those involved in the sex trade.

But advocates say that will do nothing to remove the criminal aspect from the industry and urged that the government create a "Canadian model" that was right for this country. What the Nordic model gets right, they say, is that sex workers are not considered criminals. What it gets wrong is that by criminalizing the client they leave sex workers facing the same fears and concerns.

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A similar debate is playing out in several European countries. Sweden was first to embrace the Nordic model in 1999, and police officials in that country say the number of prostitutes has dropped by two-thirds since then. Norway implemented similar laws, and Belgium and Ireland are said to be considering it. France made it illegal to pay for sex last week, and a coalition of politician and women’s rights groups have urged England follow those footsteps and implement the Nordic model.

Britain’s prostitution laws are currently quite similar to Canada’s now-rejected rules, in that prostitution is not illegal but running a brothel and street solicitation are.

Katrina Pacey, litigation director for the Pivot Legal Society, said the Nordic model would "replicate all of the same harms that we have seen in the judgment that came down today."

She said it would force sex workers to travel to dangerous locations, limit their ability to screen clients and limit the amount a sex worker is able to discuss a transaction before agreeing to it. “The harms that this judgment identifies will be seen over and over again if we enact new laws that criminalize sex work,” she said.

Bedford holds a similar stance, believing that the Nordic model does not satisfactorily address the human rights issue at the heart of the Supreme Court ruling.

“There is no difference between a john and a regular guy. There isn’t any difference, you’ve got to believe me when I say that,” she said. “(Sex) is not illegal and there is nothing wrong with it whatsoever. It is quite health and it produces a very productive man. A happy man makes a productive man.”

(Photo courtesy The Canadian Press)

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