Prostitution Laws Struck Down on Workplace Safety Grounds

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In Canada, while prostitution isn’t illegal, many of its related activities, including running a brothel or bawdy house and communicating for the purpose of prostitution, are illegal. An appeals court just struck down some of the laws limiting prostitution-related activities—not because of moral or personal freedom arguments but on workplace safety grounds.

In Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, [2012] ONCA 186 (CanLII), March 26, 2012, the Ontario Court of Appeal heard an appeal from a controversial decision made by an Ontario Superior Court judge that struck down three prostitution laws because they  exacerbate the harm that prostitutes already face.

The prostitutes challenging the laws argued that, like any sensible person, they want to take reasonable steps to make their working environment as safe as possible and to reduce the risk of violence, such as working indoors or in close proximity to others and using bodyguards. But the laws interfere with their ability to protect themselves by criminalizing such rudimentary and obvious steps.

The Court of Appeal agreed. “The world in which street prostitutes actually operate is a world of dark streets and barren, isolated, silent places,” said the court. “It is a dangerous world, with always the risk of violence and even death.”

So the court ruled that the impact of the “bawdy-house” provisions, which ban engaging in prostitution indoors such as in a brothel, was “grossly disproportionate to the legislative objective” of keeping order in public neighbourhoods. The evidence was clear that the safest way to sell sex is for a prostitute to work indoors, in a location under her control. Thus, this ban wasn’t a reasonable limit on prostitution.

In the end, the court struck down laws barring prostitutes from working indoors and hiring drivers, bodyguards and other support staff. But it did uphold a law barring prostitutes form openly soliciting customers on the street.

The OHS laws across Canada have expanded to address workplace violence. (For more information, tools and videos on this topic, go the OHS Insider’s Workplace Violence Compliance Center.) So it’s no surprise that the courts bought arguments that the law was making a risky profession even more dangerous, especially in terms of the risks of violence.

So what do you think about this decision?