While the purchase and sale of sexual services were not in themselves illegal when the Canada v. Bedford Case was heard in the Canadian Supreme Court in December 2013, nearly all activities surrounding prostitution were criminalised.
The Supreme Court case was a response to a court challenge by three Ontario sex workers, Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, that had resulted in an Ontario court ruling that overturned three provisions of Canada’s Criminal Code: keeping or being found in a bawdy house; living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution. The Ontario Court of Appeal later upheld the law against communicating in public, but sided with the lower court in overturning the provisions against living off the avails and keeping a bawdy house.
On December 20th, 2013, the Supreme Court (in a unanimous 9-0 decision) ruled that all three provisions violated the right to security of the person protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and struck them all down.
In writing the decision, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin acknowledged the harm caused by the criminalisation of activities around sex work:
“The prohibitions at issue 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 risk”.
However, the provisions remain in place while the conservative Canadian government decides what to do. The government was given one year to rewrite prostitution laws and tabled its proposed legislation in June 2014; disappointingly, the proposed legislation seeks merely to reproduce the harms of the current laws.