TORONTO — Canada’s highest court struck down the country’s anti-prostitution laws Friday, a victory for sex workers who had argued that a ban on brothels and other measures made their profession more dangerous. The ruling drew criticism from the conservative government and religious leaders.
Prostitution isn’t illegal in Canada, but many activities associated with prostitution are classified as criminal offenses.
The court, ruling in a case brought by three women in the sex trade, struck down all three of Canada’s prostitution-related laws: bans on keeping a brothel, making a living from prostitution, and street soliciting.
Sex-trade workers in Canada stepped up their fight for safer working conditions following the serial killings of prostitutes by Robert Pickton in British Columbia. Pickton was convicted in 2007 of killing six women whose remains were found on his farm outside Vancouver. Years earlier, authorities had closed down a Vancouver house for sex workers that many had considered a safe haven just as the disappearance of several prostitutes began raising fears that a serial killer was prowling the streets.
“I am shocked and amazed that sex work and the sex work laws that affect our lives on a daily basis will within a year not cause us harm anymore,” said Amy Lebovitch, who brought the case along with Terri-Jean Bedford and Valerie Scott.
A lawyer for the women, Alan Young, hailed the ruling as “a resounding victory for the rule of law, and a victory for liberty and security of the person and finally a long overdue recognition that sex workers are deserving of equal protection of the law.”
Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the government was “concerned” by the decision and is “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.”
The decision upheld an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling last year that struck down the ban on brothels on the grounds that it endangered sex workers by forcing them onto the streets.
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing on behalf of the court, said Canada’s social landscape has changed since 1990, when the Supreme Court upheld a ban on street solicitation.
“These appeals and the cross-appeal are not about whether prostitution should be legal or not,” she wrote. “They are about whether the laws Parliament has enacted on how prostitution may be carried out pass constitutional muster. I conclude that they do not.”
Don Hutchinson, vice president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, a religious group that opposes the decriminalization of prostitution, warned the decision could lead to increased human trafficking and victimization of people.
“I think we’re going to see an increase in cross-border traffic for those hoping to access our brothels,” Hutchinson said.
Sex-trade workers argued that much has happened since the high court last considered prostitution, including the Pickton murders.
In 1990, the two women on Canada’s Supreme Court dissented on the ruling upholding the ban on street solicitation. This time, all six men on the court justices sided with their three female colleagues.
“The harms identified by the courts below are grossly disproportionate to the deterrence of community disruption that is the object of the law,” McLachlin wrote. “Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes.”
The Supreme Court appeared to acknowledge the Pickton case in the ruling, saying: “A law that prevents street prostitutes from resorting to a safe haven such as Grandma’s House while a suspected serial killer prowls the streets, is a law that has lost sight of its purpose.”
Grandma’s House was a safe house established to support street workers in Vancouver’s drug and violence-riddled Downtown Eastside. Authorities considered the house a brothel and raided and closed it in 2000. The brothel charges were stayed four years later, but by then it was too late.
The Supreme Court also struck down the law that makes living off the avails of prostitution illegal, rejecting the Ontario government’s argument that it is designed “to target the commercialization of prostitution and to promote the values of dignity and equality.”
Parliament could ask the Supreme Court for an extension on the effect of the ruling, if it has tabled legislation but can’t meet the one-year deadline.
The ruling told Parliament it needs to reshape the legal framework around prostitution.