The Ontario Superior Court has upheld the constitutionality of Canada’s criminal laws on prostitution, dismissing a charter challenge brought by groups advocating for the rights of sex workers.
In a 142-page ruling, Justice Robert Goldstein stated that the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act introduced by the former Conservative government creates a balance between curbing the most exploitative elements of the sex trade while safeguarding prostitutes from legal repercussions.
“I find that Parliament’s response to a pressing and substantial concern is a carefully crafted legislative scheme. ... The offences minimally impair the Charter rights of sex workers,” Justice Goldstein wrote, according to The Canadian Press. “The offences also permit sex workers to take safety measures.”
The decision comes after the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, representing 25 sex worker organizations across the country, argued that these laws perpetuate stigma, increase vulnerability to violence, and hinder meaningful consent, thereby violating the charter rights of the workers.
CriminalizedFollowing the Supreme Court of Canada striking down previous anti-prostitution laws, in 2014 new laws regarding prostitution were introduced. Although the act of prostitution itself was lawful, the previous laws prohibited brothel management, third-party management of sex workers, and public solicitation.
The updated act made it illegal to pay for sex services and prohibited businesses from profiting from it, including communicating to hire a prostitute. However, both prostitutes and non-exploitative third parties who profit are, themselves, immune from prosecution if they sell or advertise their services.
In October 2022, the sex workers’ alliance said the new regulations were more restrictive than those they replaced and criminalized sex workers and their colleagues. The new regulations, according to attorneys for gender-diverse, indigenous, and black sex workers, disproportionately harm minority groups.
The goal of the regulations, the federal government argued, is to “target and end the demand for sexual services.” The government said that legalizing prostitution would promote human trafficking.
Justice Goldstein said that case evidence was limited to the available research and exhibited witness bias. He further noted that third-party individuals could be exploitative or traffickers.
“Where a customer purchases sex, there is a significant possibility that the sex worker has been trafficked, manipulated, lured, forced and/or coerced into providing sexual services,” Justice Goldstein wrote.
“Even where a sex worker has entered the sex trade by choice, there is a significant possibility that she has become subject to the control of an exploiter or a trafficker.”
In a review conducted by a House of Commons justice committee in 2022, it was determined that the 2014 prostitution laws had made sex work more risky. The committee recommended the government enhance the Criminal Code by allocating additional resources to support victims and law enforcement in their efforts to combat exploitation.
The sex workers’ alliance intends to appeal the court’s decision.