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Supreme Court strikes down prostitution laws.

In Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, B, L and S, current or former prostitutes, brought an application seeking declarations that three provisions of the Criminal Code, which criminalize various activities related to prostitution, infringe their rights under s. 7 of the Charter: s. 210 makes it an offence to keep or be in a bawdy‑house; s. 212(1)(j) prohibits living on the avails of prostitution; and, s. 213(1)(c) prohibits communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution. They argued that these restrictions on prostitution put the safety and lives of prostitutes at risk, by preventing them from implementing certain safety measures—such as hiring security guards or “screening” potential clients—that could protect them from violence. B, L and S also alleged that s. 213(1)(c) infringes the freedom of expression guarantee under s. 2(b) of the Charter, and that none of the provisions are saved under s. 1.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice granted the application, declaring, without suspension, that each of the impugned Criminal Code provisions violated the Charter and could not be saved by s. 1. The Ontario Court of Appeal agreed s. 210 was unconstitutional and struck the word “prostitution” from the definition of “common bawdy‑house” as it applies to s. 210, however it suspended the declaration of invalidity for 12 months. The court declared that s. 212(1)(j) was an unjustifiable violation of s. 7, ordering the reading in of words to clarify that the prohibition on living on the avails of prostitution applies only to those who do so “in circumstances of exploitation”. It further held the communicating prohibition under s. 213(1)(c) did not violate either s. 2(b) or s. 7.

The Attorneys General appealed from the declaration that ss. 210 and 212(1)(j) of the Code are unconstitutional. B, L and S cross‑appeal on the constitutionality of s. 213(1)(c) and in respect of the s. 210 remedy. The Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) held the appeals should be dismissed and the cross‑appeal allowed. Sections 210, 212(1)(j) and 213(1)(c) of the Criminal Code are declared to be inconsistent with the Charter. The declaration of invalidity should be suspended for one year.

The SCC held three impugned provisions, primarily concerned with preventing public nuisance as well as the exploitation of prostitutes, do not pass Charter muster: they infringe the s. 7 rights of prostitutes by depriving them of security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. It is not necessary to determine whether this Court should depart from or revisit its conclusion in the Prostitution Reference that s. 213(1)(c) does not violate s. 2(b) since it is possible to resolve this case entirely on s. 7 grounds.

The SCC held the impugned laws negatively impact security of the person rights of prostitutes and thus engage s. 7. The proper standard of causation is a flexible “sufficient causal connection” standard, as correctly adopted by the application judge. The prohibitions all heighten the risks the applicants face in prostitution—itself a legal activity. They do not merely impose conditions on how prostitutes operate. They go a critical step further, by imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky—but legal—activity from taking steps to protect themselves from the risks. That causal connection is not negated by the actions of third‑party johns and pimps, or prostitutes’ so‑called choice to engage in prostitution. While some prostitutes may fit the description of persons who freely choose (or at one time chose) to engage in the risky economic activity of prostitution, many prostitutes have no meaningful choice but to do so. Moreover, it makes no difference that the conduct of pimps and johns is the immediate source of the harms suffered by prostitutes. The violence of a john does not diminish the role of the state in making a prostitute more vulnerable to that violence.

The Court said the applicants have also established that the deprivation of their security of the person is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice: principles that attempt to capture basic values underpinning our constitutional order. This case concerns the basic values against arbitrariness (where there is no connection between the effect and the object of the law), overbreadth (where the law goes too far and interferes with some conduct that bears no connection to its objective), and gross disproportionality (where the effect of the law is grossly disproportionate to the state’s objective). These are three distinct principles, but overbreadth is related to arbitrariness, in that the question for both is whether there is no connection between the law’s effect and its objective. All three principles compare the rights infringement caused by the law with the objective of the law, not with the law’s effectiveness; they do not look to how well the law achieves its object, or to how much of the population the law benefits or is negatively impacted. The analysis is qualitative, not quantitative. The question under s. 7 is whether anyone’s life, liberty or security of the person has been denied by a law that is inherently bad; a grossly disproportionate, overbroad, or arbitrary effect on one person is sufficient to establish a breach of s. 7.

Applying these principles to the impugned provisions, the SCC held the negative impact of the bawdy‑house prohibition (s. 210) on the applicants’ security of the person is grossly disproportionate to its objective of preventing public nuisance. The harms to prostitutes identified by the courts below, such as being prevented from working in safer fixed indoor locations and from resorting to safe houses, are grossly disproportionate to the deterrence of community disruption. Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes. Second, the purpose of the living on the avails of prostitution prohibition in s. 212(1)(j) is to target pimps and the parasitic, exploitative conduct in which they engage. The law, however, punishes everyone who lives on the avails of prostitution without distinguishing between those who exploit prostitutes and those who could increase the safety and security of prostitutes, for example, legitimate drivers, managers, or bodyguards. It also includes anyone involved in business with a prostitute, such as accountants or receptionists. In these ways, the law includes some conduct that bears no relation to its purpose of preventing the exploitation of prostitutes. The living on the avails provision is consequently overbroad. Third, the purpose of the communicating prohibition in s. 213(1)(c) is not to eliminate street prostitution for its own sake, but to take prostitution off the streets and out of public view in order to prevent the nuisances that street prostitution can cause. The provision’s negative impact on the safety and lives of street prostitutes, who are prevented by the communicating prohibition from screening potential clients for intoxication and propensity to violence, is a grossly disproportionate response to the possibility of nuisance caused by street prostitution.

While the Attorneys General have not seriously argued that the laws, if found to infringe s. 7, can be justified under s. 1, the SCC said some of their arguments under s. 7 are properly addressed at this stage of the analysis. In particular, they attempt to justify the living on the avails provision on the basis that it must be drafted broadly in order to capture all exploitative relationships. However, the law not only catches drivers and bodyguards, who may actually be pimps, but it also catches clearly non‑exploitative relationships, such as receptionists or accountants who work with prostitutes. The law is therefore not minimally impairing. Nor, at the final stage of the s. 1 inquiry, is the law’s effect of preventing prostitutes from taking measures that would increase their safety, and possibly save their lives, outweighed by the law’s positive effect of protecting prostitutes from exploitative relationships. The impugned laws are not saved by s. 1.

The SCC said concluding that each of the challenged provisions violates the Charter does not mean that Parliament is precluded from imposing limits on where and how prostitution may be conducted, as long as it does so in a way that does not infringe the constitutional rights of prostitutes. The regulation of prostitution is a complex and delicate matter. It will be for Parliament, should it choose to do so, to devise a new approach, reflecting different elements of the existing regime. Considering all the interests at stake, the SCC ruled the declaration of invalidity should be suspended for one year.


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