Prostitution laws hang in balance in Canadian Supreme Court case Friday

Dec 19, 2013
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Canada’s prostitution laws could fall on Friday, as the Supreme Court of Canada weighs whether the laws put vulnerable women at increased risk of violence, even murder, against Parliament’s role to make choices in how to best protect individuals and communities.

Three laws are at stake in the landmark case: bans on street solicitation, pimps and brothels. Prostitution itself is not illegal, but Canadian laws have aimed to deter the selling of sex since pre-Confederation days, drawing on centuries-old British laws meant to control vagrancy, venereal disease and immoral behavior.

web-prostitution18nw1Those Canadian laws have run up against the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects the individual right to security from unwarranted intrusions of the justice system. It is the same section used by judges to strike down the criminal law of abortion 25 years ago.The federal government has argued that the prostitution laws have modern purposes, including the protection of sex workers from harm. But the court may insist the initial purposes are what counts.“This is a key issue where we’ll sense whether Parliament is allowed to ban things on a morality justification, or whether the court will say, ‘if a policy is actually making things worse for people, that violates their rights,’ ” McGill University law professor Robert Leckey said.

Even if the court accepts that Ottawa is trying to protect women and communities, it may find the laws add unacceptable harm.

Several judges on the Supreme Court balked when federal lawyer Michael Morris argued in June that it is the women’s fault, not the law’s, for taking on the risks of an inherently dangerous trade. The federal government’s own experts say most women in the sex trade started at 14 and were victims of child sexual and physical abuse. And the memory of sex workers murdered by Robert Pickton in British Columbia is still fresh, after a public inquiry into those killings released its report late last year.

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