In December the Supreme Court of Canada released it’s much anticipated decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford 2013 SCC 72 in which it found three Canadian prostitution offences unconstitutional. The three Criminal Code offences involve keeping a brothel, pimping and communicating in public about sex for sale. The high court gave the government a year to make changes. It it doesn’t, those activities will no longer be illegal in Canada.
A number of people have asked me if this means prostitution is now legal in Canada. They’ve all been surprised to learn that prostitution – the sale of sex for money – wasn’t an offence before the Bedford case, so the decision hasn’t changed anything in that regard.
The Bedford case actually concerned the prostitution-related offences regarding brothels, pimping and communicating in public about sex for sale. The nine appeal judges unanimously found each of the three offences unconstitutional because they violate a prostitute’s Charter right to security of the person in a way that is contrary to the principles of fundamental justice. The federal government didn’t seriously attempt to justify the violation.
Basically, the court accepted the argument that these provisions put the safety and lives of prostitutes at risk, and are therefore unconstitutional.
The context within which the decision was made is obviously important. Prostitution, although legal, clearly poses significant danger to prostitutes. Indeed, the decision makes several references to the case of notorious serial killer Robert Pickton in support of this seemingly uncontentious proposition.
“Keeping a common bawdy-house”
This is the offence that prohibits keeping a brothel. It was found to prevent a prostitute’s ability to do in-calls – in which clients attend at prostitutes’ residences (regarded by prostitutes as the safest environment within to engage in prostitution); when more dangerous out-calls – in which prostitutes attend at clients’ residences, are permitted.
“Living on the avails of prostitution”
This is the offence that prohibits pimping. It was found to prevent a prostitute’s ability to hire services such as security for out-calls – things like a professional driver (although the decision notes the offence even prevents the hiring of business services such as accounting).
“Communicating in a public place”
This is the offence that prohibits prostitutes and their customers from communicating in a public place about the sale of sex for money. It was found to prevent a prostitute’s ability to screen for “bad dates”.
So what does it all mean?
The court gave the government a year to make changes to the offences. If the government declines to do so, these activities will no longer be criminalized. If it does make changes, it will be interesting to see what form they take.
In the meantime, prostitution remains legal. I don’t anticipate any police or prosecutorial enthusiasm for investigating or laying charges for these offences, and criminal defence lawyers who did a lot of these types of cases will need to consider broadening the scope of their practices.