On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada heard oral arguments in Bedford v. Canada, in which several sex workers are challenging three laws related to prostitution (prostitution itself is not a crime in Canada):
• Bawdy-House Laws, which make it illegal to operate or be found in a place used for prostitution. These “anti-brothel laws” make it illegal to rent or own a place used for sex work (including your own home), which has the effect of driving sex work into the streets.
• Procuring, which makes third parties criminally liable for any financial benefit derived from prostitution. In theory, these are anti-pimping laws, but in effect, they prevent sex workers from using booking agents, bodyguards, and other service providers.
• Communicating Law, which makes it illegal to communicate about sex work in a public place (including cars). Among other dangers, the Communicating Law reduces sex workers’ ability to converse and negotiate to evaluate a potential client for safety.
The Bedford plaintiffs allege that these laws threaten their Charter (the Canadian declaration of rights) rights to liberty and security, with the Communicating Law additionally violating freedom of expression.
At the oral argument, according to the Vancouver Sun
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin raised the question of whether [the fact that prostitution is not criminalized] means prostitutes ought to be able to hire security guards and work in secure brothels, off the street. ”It could be Brinks or somebody. I’m not sure they’re in that business,” she said, sparking muted laughter in the court.
The Ontario Court of Appeal struck down the section that forbids brothels, but it upheld a ban on communication for the purposes of prostitution, which makes street prostitution illegal. The court also imposed limits on the section that prohibits living off the avails of prostitution to exclude people such as a sex worker’s bodyguard, accountant or receptionist. It said the provision should only apply “in circumstances of exploitation.”
Federal and provincial lawyers are arguing that the intent of Parliament is impose limits on prostitution.
“The assertion that prostitution is legal in Canada is misleading. Prostitution has always been and remains more illegal than legal in Canada,” argued lawyer Jamie Klukach, appearing for the Ontario Attorney General.
In a passionate address to the court, Osgoode Hall law professor Alan Young — who is leading the court challenge — argued the opposite.
Young slammed the “mythmaking, fear mongering and storytelling” of his legal opponents and the “powerful, lofty, rarefied statements that don’t reflect the law.”
He urged the court to set aside moral considerations and stick to the core legal issues.
You can listen to the argument here, but be warned: it is several hours long.