Ontario high court strikes down many anti-prostitution laws

Via CBC News:

An Ontario court has thrown out key provisions of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws in response to a constitutional challenge brought by a Toronto dominatrix and two prostitutes in 2009.

Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice ruled Tuesday the Criminal Code provisions relating to prostitution contribute to the danger faced by sex-trade workers. Dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford and Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch had argued that prohibitions on keeping a common bawdy house, communicating for the purposes of prostitution and living on the avails of the trade force them from the safety of their homes to face violence on the streets.

The women asked the court to declare legal restrictions on their activities a violation of charter rights of security of the person and freedom of expression. The women and their lawyer, Alan Young, were expected to hold a news conference later Tuesday afternoon.

The government had argued that striking down the provisions without enacting something else in their place would “pose a danger to the public.” Some conservative groups such as Real Women of Canada, who had intervener status in the case, argued that decriminalizing prostitution may make Canada a haven for human trafficking and that prostitution is harmful to the women involved in it.

However, in her ruling Tuesday, Justice Susan Himel said it now falls to Parliament to “fashion corrective action.”

“It is my view that in the meantime these unconstitutional provisions should be of no force and effect, particularly given the seriousness of the charter violations,” Himel wrote.

While prostitution is technically legal, virtually every activity associated with it is not. The Criminal Code of Canada prohibits communication for the purpose of prostitution. It also prohibits keeping a common bawdy house for the purpose of prostitution. Those laws enacted in 1985 were an attempt to deal with the public nuisance created by street walkers. They failed to recognize the alternative — allowing women to work more safely indoors — was prohibited, Young had said previously.

Young called it “bizarre” that the ban on bawdy houses is an indictable offence that carries stiffer sanctions, including jail time and potential forfeiture of a woman’s home, when the ban on communication for prostitution purposes is usually a summary offence that at most leads to fines. The provisions prevent sex workers from properly screening clients, hiring security or working in the comfort and safety of their own homes or brothels, he had said. Young cited statistics behind the “shocking and horrific” stories of women who work the streets, along with research that was not available when the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the communication ban in 1990.

Anna North contextualizes:

[P]rostitution is legal in Canada, but “virtually every activity associated with it is not.” Sex workers were previously barred from “keeping a common bawdy house, communicating for the purposes of prostitution and living on the avails of the trade.” Even a judge once called these prohibitions “bizarre” — and three sex workers filed a lawsuit saying that the laws forced them to work outside their homes and in unsafe conditions, and kept them from doing things like paying security guards or screening clients. Dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford (pictured, left) told Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice that she still bore the scars from being attacked with a baseball bat by a client several years ago. But her job may be about to get a lot safer: the Court just ruled all three laws unconstitutional.

“These laws, individually and together, force prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Justice Susan Himel in her decision. Conservative group Real Women of Canada argued against repealing the laws, alleging that prostitution harms women. But being attacked with a baseball bat pretty clearly harms women too, and making prostitutes’ jobs more dangerous is hardly the way to help them. It appears that the Superior Court of Ontario has finally listened to sex workers’ voices — maybe some in the US will start doing so too.

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