A Canadian Court has overturned a series of laws regulating sex work, furthering the debate as to whether to decriminalise or clamp down on prostitution.
The decision, handed down by the High Court in Ontario, effectively abolished laws banning street soliciting (communicating for the purposes of prostitution), working together from premises (bawdy house) and living off the avails of prostitution. The decision followed a legal challenge from three sex workers who argued that these laws directly endangered their health and forced them into unsafe working conditions.
According to a report in the Globe and Mail, Ontario Judge Susan Himel declared that the laws violated a constitutional guarantee of "the rights to life, liberty and safety".
"I find that the danger faced by prostitutes greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by the public," Himel said.
"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."
The news was greeted with delight by those arguing the sex workers’ case. York University law professor Alan Young, supporting the challenge, scanned the judgment seconds after it was released, and exclaimed: "We got everything: we did it. Finally, somebody listened."
One of the litigants, flamboyant dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, is reported to have spontaneously leaped from her chair at a Toronto news conference on Tuesday afternoon. Waving her trademark leather riding crop in the air, she announced that she would be celebrating. She said: "I’m going to spank some ass. Legally!"
"It’s a great day for Canada: It’s like emancipation day for sex trade workers."
A second litigant, former prostitute Valerie Scott, said that prostitutes will begin pressing immediately for a support regime that includes workers’ compensation, health standards and inclusion in the country’s income tax scheme.
Officials were not amused. Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson claimed that it is for government to decide how best to protect prostitutes and local communities, adding: "The Government... is seriously considering an appeal." Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak both added their support to an appeal.
They have 30 days to bring one.
This ruling adds fuel to an already inflamed debate on the issue, especially as the Canadian law in this area is closely modelled on UK law.
Some legislatures, such as New Zealand and Germany, have clearly decided that as prostitution is unlikely ever to go away, the best approach is to bring it within the scope of the law, making it safe for sex workers and their clients to report abuses where they happen and focussing the full weight of the law on the most abhorrent practices, such as trafficking or child abuse.
By contrast, Sweden – followed in the last parliament by the UK – has taken an ever more draconian approach to sex work, criminalising clients in an attempt to stifle demand. In the UK, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) are angry that a combination of moral crusade and Proceeds of Crime Laws – by which police and prosecutors benefit financially from money seized from criminals - has led some police forces to target the easy pickings represented by prosecuting sex workers.
Sex workers are increasingly unwilling to report violence against them to the police, as experience suggests that the police are as likely to then prosecute the complainant as the individual guilty of the original offence. At the same time, there is a continuing trickle of allegations that money seized from sex workers is not all officially accounted for – and that it is next to impossible for sex workers to take action in such cases.
At the same time, as the recent case of Clare Finch demonstrates, English juries show a marked reluctance to convict women charged with brothel-keeping who are working collectively with friends for safety.
Both the ECP and International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) believe that the best way to safeguard sex workers in the UK is not by demonising them or their work, but by bringing them more fully within the umbrella of the law.
Decriminalisation, they believe, will save women’s lives: clampdowns won’t. ®
A survey carried out as part of last Sunday's BBC1 Sunday Morning Live discussion, featuring Catherine Stephens of the IUSW, Bel Mooney of the Daily Mail and Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman showed overwhelming public support for accepting prostitution, with 71 per cent in favour and 29 per cent against.