Hundreds of legal experts call on federal government to reconsider proposed prostitution laws

Ottawa, ON [July 7]—More than 200 legal experts from across Canada are urging the federal government to consider the harmful and likely unconstitutional effects of the proposed sex work legislation introduced by Justice Minister MacKay last month.

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The signatories to the open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper—which include top constitutional, criminal, and public law experts—assert that Bill C-36, the Protection Of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, will reproduce the harms caused by the prostitution laws that were struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in Bedford v. Canada. The letter states that the criminal laws proposed by Bill C-36 are likely to violate the Charter rights of sex workers, who will face increased risk of violence as a result of the new law.
The open letter was released on the first day of hearings by the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which is studying the proposed legislation.
The letter examines three key aspects of Bill C-36—the prohibitions on purchasing sex, public communication and advertising—and says these prohibitions will recreate the violent and harmful conditions that caused the SCC to strike down three of Canada’s major prostitution laws.
“These laws were found to create and exacerbate dangerous conditions and prevent sex workers from taking action to reduce or mitigate the risks they face,” the letter states. “We are concerned that, for the very same reasons that caused the Court to strike down these prostitution laws, the criminal regime proposed by Bill C-36 is likely to offend the Charter as well.”
The proposed legislation targets clients through the prohibition on purchasing sex and makes it an offence for sex workers to communicate in almost all public places. According to the letter, this creates a situation where sex workers and clients take steps to avoid police detection, which means they are displaced to isolated, dangerous areas and sex workers have less time to screen clients before getting into vehicles.
“Minister MacKay has expressed his view that criminalizing clients will protect sex workers, but this approach will, in fact, have devastating consequences on sex workers’ safety,” says Elin Sigurdson, a Vancouver-based lawyer who has worked for more than a decade on sex workers’ rights in Canada and will be making submissions before the Justice Committee. “The evidence from Canada and from around the world has made it clear that approach creates the conditions for violence, abuse, and human rights violations to occur by driving the sex industry underground where sex workers have little control over the conditions of their work.”
In addition to criminalizing clients of sex workers, Bill C-36 also proposes prohibitions on advertising sexual services, a provision that will restrict sex workers’ ability to work safely indoors.
“The ban on advertising will make working indoors very difficult, if not impossible, because sex workers will not be able to market their services.” said Sandra Ka Hon Chu, a Toronto lawyer and co-director of research and advocacy with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “The Supreme Court of Canada was very clear that that the bawdy house law, which had the same effect of depriving sex workers of access to safer indoor work environments, violated their fundamental constitutional rights. In this regard, I believe that the advertising restriction offends sex workers’ right to security of the person.”
A copy of the letter and list of signatories has been sent to the Prime Minister and provided to all members of the Justice Committee. It is also available here.
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Pivot Legal Society is a leading Canadian human rights organization that uses the law to address the root causes of poverty and social exclusion in Canada. Pivot’s award winning work includes challenging laws and policies that force people to the margins of society and keep them there. Since 2002 Pivot has won major victories for sex workers’ rights, police accountability, affordable housing, and health and drug policy.
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