OHS Canada Magazine

Supreme Court strikes down sex work provisions

January 20, 2014

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(Canadian OH&S News)

(Canadian OH&S News)

Government officials and sex workers are formulating their responses to a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision that found three legal provisions surrounding sex work in Canada’s Criminal Code to be unconstitutional. The judgement, issued on Dec. 20, gives legislators a year to decide whether to decriminalize prostitution or draft new laws that would not infringe on sex workers’ rights as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The ruling, in the case of the Attorney General of Canada versus sex workers Terri Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, strikes down three laws in the Criminal Code of Canada, laws that were found to violate the right to security of the person. These provisions prohibit keeping or being found in a bawdy house (s. 210), living on the avails of prostitution (s. 212(1)(j)) and communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution (s. 213(1)(c)).

Criminalization dangerous: advocate

Jen La Fauci Gordon, co-chair of the Bad Date Coalition, a Toronto-based social action group that aims to improve safety for sex workers, said laws criminalizing prostitution put sex workers in danger. “I saw too many people who didn’t get to make it to see this day, and a lot of it has to do with the laws,” she said, referring to fellow sex workers who had been murdered.


“Obviously, there’s always going to be risks when you’re dealing with other people. But at least we know that we have the law behind us now,” she said. “That’s a huge weight off when just going to work means that you can get killed. It’s a ridiculous price to pay just to pay your rent.”

Doing away with current legislation would allow sex workers to work in the safety of their homes or other controlled environments as well as hire drivers, receptionists, and people to screen clients. The biggest safety issue for sex workers is the section that forbids communicating in public for the purpose of sex work, La Fauci Gordon said. She said that striking down this provision would allow street workers more time to suss out potential clients.

The laws remain in effect for another year, and the government is currently considering how to address the matter, said federal Minister of Justice Peter MacKay. “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. We are committed to the safety of all Canadians and the well-being of our communities,” MacKay said in a written statement.

He added that other provisions will remain in place to protect those engaged in prostitution and to address the negative effects that prostitution has on communities.

In the meantime, some sex workers are celebrating the decision. “It’s a decisive win for safety, justice and equality for sex workers here and around the world,” said Chanelle Gallant, communications coordinator at Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, at a press conference held in Toronto on the day of the judgement.

In the unanimous decision written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, the Supreme Court said the prohibitions at issue heightened the risks posed to sex workers. “They 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 from the risk,” she wrote.


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