Sex trade advocates argue B.C.’s response to Supreme Court ruling endangers women
The B.C. attorney general’s office has sent out a press release emphasizing that the province will continue to press charges in some cases of prostitution-related crimes.
“It has been inaccurately reported that the ‘B.C. Attorney General, Suzanne Anton, announced that the province would no longer proceed with prostitution-related charges,’” states a February 17 release.
The clarification issued by the Criminal Justice Branch concerns interpretations of a December 20, 2013, Supreme Court ruling in the case of Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford. In that decision, judges struck down three of the country’s prostitution laws, ruling that they are inconsistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Sections of the Criminal Code in question concern communicating for the purposes of prostitution, living on the avails of prostitution, and keeping or being in a common bawdy-house.
The February 17 message from the Justice Branch states that according to guidelines issued by Crown counsel, charges related to those offences are still found to be in the public’s interest when applied to clients paying for sex.
The document emphasizes that what has been found to be in a “diminished public interest” are those charges when applied against sex trade workers.
“The branch guidelines are to be applied on a case-by-case basis,” the release states.
Jamie Lee Hamilton, one of Vancouver’s lead advocates for sex trade workers, told the Straight that this is not the change in policy that she hoped the Bedford decision would bring.
“It again places sex workers in very vulnerable positions,” she said in a telephone interview. “It places women in dangerous situations where they are going to have to go looking for men in environments that could be quite shady and not affirming to them as human beings. So it will put them in a very vulnerable place.”
Hamilton explained that while the attorney general’s announcement indicates that punishments for prostitution-related activities may shift from sex workers to clients, that’s not going to translate into safer working conditions for women engaged in the sex trade. She maintained that with half of a transaction still open to prosecution, many sex trade workers will continue to conceal their activities in ways detrimental to their safety.
Katrina Pacey is a litigation director for the Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society who acted as one of several interveners in the case of Canada v. Bedford. She told the Straight that her understanding of Supreme Court's decision is that it pertains to all law enforcement pressures on street-level prostitution.
Pacey argued that regulations enforced against clients have detrimental effects for sex workers the same as if they were still applied against prostitutes directly.
“That does push sex workers into dark, isolated, dangerous corners of our cities where there is nobody available to assist if sex workers are in trouble,” she said. “So we’re very concerned about enforcement and prosecution of that particular offence because irrespective of who is being targeted, the degree of violence and danger in street-based sex work increases.”