A group of Vancouver sex workers has won the right to challenge Canada’s laws on prostitution in court.
The Supreme Court of Canada today (September 21) dismissed an appeal made by the federal government seeking to prohibit Sheryl Kiselbach, a former sex worker based in Vancouver, and the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society (SWUAV) from challenging the country’s criminal laws related to adult prostitution.
Katrina Pacey, litigation director for Pivot Legal Society and counsel for Kiselbach and SWUAV, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that this ruling has two implications.
“One is for Sheryl Kiselbach and for SWUAV in this case, they can proceed with their challenge to the criminal laws related to adult prostitution,” Pacey said. “Secondary…this decision opens the door for new, safe, and better ways for marginalized people to bring human-rights claims to court in a way that protects them and makes this kind of litigation more realistic.”
In 2007, Kiselbach, who worked in the sex trade for 30 years, and SWUAV, a collective of street-based sex workers, filed a constitutional challenge to Canada’s criminal code. The federal government brought in a motion preventing the case from going to trial, and the B.C. Supreme Court agreed, concluding that Kiselbach and SWUAV did not have standing since they had not been charged with a prostitution-related offence.
After the B.C. Court of Appeal reversed the decision, the federal government appealed it to the Supreme Court of Canada on January 19. The Supreme Court’s ruling nine months later says that Kiselbach and SWUAV have public-interest standing to pursue their case.
Pacey, who has been working with SWUAV since 2003, says that her clients are fighting for the decriminalization of sex work, which would give sex workers greater control over the conditions of their work, leading to improved safety, health, and human dignity.
“Specifically for our clients who work in street-based sex work, they are women who struggle with violence. They struggle with dire poverty, with addiction, with homelessness,” Pacey said. “They’re not looking for their clients to be criminalized either. They’re looking for consenting adults to be permitted to engage in consensual sex, and for the police to protect them when they ask for it instead of judging or punishing anyone in the industry just for the sake of being in the industry.”
Pacey believes that today’s decision increases opportunities for people who face significant barriers to accessing justice.
“The message of this case is people who are already facing difficult circumstances shouldn’t have to face more risks, or take more risks, or face more harm in order to fight for their rights.”
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