Pivot Point, Winter 2012
Sex workers fight for access to justice at the Supreme Court
January 19, 2012 was an incredible day for justice. For the first time in Canadian history, sex workers from the Downtown Eastside fought for their rights at the Supreme Court of Canada. The story of this litigation begins in 2007 when Pivot was asked to represent the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society (SWUAV) and Sheryl Kiselbach in a constitutional challenge to the criminal laws that prohibit various aspects of adult sex work. SWUAV is an organization run by and for street-based sex workers in the DTES and Sheryl is a former sex worker and currently the violence prevention coordinator at the PACE Society.
In initiating this litigation, our clients’ goal was to see Canada’s harmful prostitution laws struck down because of their negative impact on the safety, equality and human dignity of sex workers. Sadly, from the outset of this litigation, the federal government has used its immense resources to attempt to prevent our clients from having their case heard by the Court.
Shortly after the claim was filed, the government brought a motion to have this important human rights case struck for lack of “standing.” Standing means having the legal right to bring a constitutional challenge to legislation. The government argued that, despite the incredible barriers that sex workers face in commencing this type of complex and controversial litigation, the courts should wait for an active, individual sex worker to come forward. Since then, we have been fighting to protect the right of our clients to bring a claim about the issues that have so profoundly affected them. This fight took us all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
After a busy morning of media interviews, the entire legal team and our clients braved freezing cold weather to gather at the Supreme Court of Canada building in Downtown Ottawa. Supporters from sex workers rights groups made their way to Ottawa to show their support for SWUAV and Sheryl. When the hearing began, we had an opportunity to tell the Court how important it is that the law of standing not be used to silence these women.
This case is ultimately about sex workers rights, but the question of who has standing to challenge laws is a critical one for all Canadians. Few people in our society are able to afford to retain a lawyer, not to mention being able to cope with the pace of litigation and the stress and publicity that it often brings. Marginalized people, who are often the most negatively effected by unjust law, face so many added barriers. The right decision from the Supreme Court of Canada will demonstrate Canada’s commitment to human rights and make access to justice a more meaningful reality for all of us.