Canada's high court strikes down laws against prostitution

By Carol J. Williams

Los Angeles Times

The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down three laws against prostitution in a landmark ruling Friday, deeming the bans on visiting brothels, living off a prostitute's proceeds and public solicitation "overly broad" and potentially dangerous for sex workers.

While prostitution is legal in Canada, the laws aimed at preventing its practice went far beyond protecting communities from public nuisances associated with the sex trade, the nine justices decided.

"Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes," wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLaughlin.

Laws that made it a crime to be found in a brothel, to live off of a prostitute's income and to solicit sex for pay in public were all deemed "grossly disproportionate" to the social ills they were meant to address, McLaughlin's opinion said.

While the measure against profiting from a prostitute's income was aimed at criminalizing pimping, it also made it illegal for prostitutes to hire those who can increase the safety of their trade, such as drivers, managers and bodyguards, the decision noted.

The court gave the Canadian federal government a year to amend the laws so that they conform with the protections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or let them expire in December 2014.

Three sex workers who brought the lawsuit alleging discrimination that exposes them to danger were jubilant over the court's ruling.

"Great day for Canada, Canadian women from coast to coast," said Terri Jean Bedford, the lead plaintiff who challenged the prostitution laws in Ontario Superior Court in 2009, according to the Calgary Herald. Bedford appeared on the snowy steps of the high court in Ottawa bedecked in dominatrix black leather and carrying a whip.

Fellow plaintiff Amy Leibovitch said she was "shocked and amazed" that the high court had rid her livelihood of laws that cause prostitutes harm on a daily basis.

The third sex worker who brought suit, Valerie Scott, urged the government against rewriting the laws restricting prostitution, saying that "the sky is not going to fall in" if sex workers are allowed to ply their trade legally.

In a commentary written for the Globe and Mail, University of Saskatchewan law professor Michael Plaxton also advised against lawmakers attempting to redraft the curbs that the justices found to be dangerous and discriminatory barriers to prostitutes' protecting themselves against potentially violent johns.

"Imagine the public’s reaction if Parliament decided to abolish the defense of self-defense. A person who was attacked would be forced to choose between breaking the law and being injured or killed," Plaxton wrote. "If Parliament wants to criminalize prostitution, it may be able to do so. But unless and until it does, it is unacceptable for the law to proceed as if some people are unworthy of the law’s protection."

There was little immediate reaction from government officials, although Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement that he was "concerned" by the court's finding of the laws to be unconstitutional.

Some women's advocacy groups also regretted the high court's decision, calling it a wrong signal to vulnerable women and girls.

"It's a sad day that we've now confirmed that it’s OK to buy and sell women and girls in this country," Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Assn. of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said in a statement on behalf of the group that assists women with judicial matters. "I think generations to come, our daughters and granddaughters will look back and say, 'What were they thinking?'"