Canada's highest court struck down the country's anti-prostitution laws Friday, a victory for sex workers fighting for safer working conditions.
The Supreme Court of Canada eliminated bans on brothels, street solicitation and living on the earnings of prostitution in a unanimous 9–0 decision and gave the Canadian government one year to rewrite the country's prostitution laws.
While sex work is legal in Canada, many prostitution-related activities were previously considered criminal offenses.
In the decision, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said many sex workers "have no meaningful choice" but to "engage in the risky economic activity of prostitution," and that the law should not make such activities more dangerous. "The impugned laws deprive people engaged in a risky, but legal, activity of the means to protect themselves against those risks," she said.
A Vancouver sex worker who was part of a group that brought the case applauded the court's decision.
"I'm shocked and pleased that our sex laws will not cause us harm in a year," Amy Lebovitch said. The two other plaintiffs are retired dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford and former prostitute Valerie Scott.
Katrina Pacey, a lawyer for the group, called it "an unbelievably important day for the sex workers but also for human rights." She added that the court recognized that sex workers have the right to protect themselves and their safety.
The decision upheld an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling last year that removed the ban on brothels on the grounds that it endangered sex workers by forcing them onto the streets.
McLachlin, writing on behalf of the court, said Canada's social landscape has changed since 1990, when the Supreme Court upheld a ban on street solicitation.
"These appeals and the cross-appeal are not about whether prostitution should be legal or not," she wrote. "They are about whether the laws Parliament has enacted on how prostitution may be carried out pass constitutional muster. I conclude that they do not."
Sex-trade workers agreed that much has happened since the high court last considered prostitution, including the serial killings of sex workers by Robert Pickton in British Columbia. Pickton was convicted in 2007 of killing six women whose remains were found on his farm outside Vancouver.
In 1990, the two women on Canada's Supreme Court dissented on the ruling upholding the ban on street solicitation. This time, all six men on the court sided with their three female colleagues.
"The harms identified by the courts below are grossly disproportionate to the deterrence of community disruption that is the object of the law," McLachlin wrote. "Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes."
The Supreme Court appeared to acknowledge the Pickton case in the ruling, saying: "A law that prevents street prostitutes from resorting to a safe haven such as Grandma's House while a suspected serial killer prowls the streets, is a law that has lost sight of its purpose."
Grandma's House was a safe house established to support street workers in Vancouver's drug- and violence-riddled Downtown Eastside at about the same time as fears were growing that a serial killer was roaming the streets.
The Supreme Court also struck down the law that makes living off the profits of sex work illegal, rejecting the Ontario government's argument that it is designed "to target the commercialization of prostitution and to promote the values of dignity and equality."
Parliament could ask the Supreme Court for an extension on the effect of the ruling, if it has proposed legislation but can't meet the one-year deadline.
In France, lawmakers recently voted in favor of criminalizing sex work. The bill fines the customers of sex workers about $2,500 for a first transgression.
Activists started a petition against the bill, titled "Manifeste des 343 Salauds," in reference to Simone de Beauvoir's 1971 "Manifeste des 343," in which the feminist philosopher and 342 other prominent thinkers admitted to having had abortions.
Sex work is legal in much of Europe and Latin America, and brothels are legal in numerous countries, including the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.
Al Jazeera and wire services