Group threatens Liberals with new legal challenge over sex work law


OTTAWA – A legal group that helped fight for sex workers’ rights at the Supreme Court of Canada will launch another Constitutional challenge if the Liberal government does not repeal the resulting law “immediately,” its lawyer says.

Brenda Belak, a lawyer at Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver, says her group is prepared to go to court if the Liberals don’t repeal the new law crafted by the Conservative government after the Supreme Court struck down the previous laws prohibiting prostitution as unconstitutional in December 2013.

“There’s no reason to wait on repealing the law,” Belak said.

“We had a very clear message from the Supreme Court of Canada that the old laws were unconstitutional. The new laws do the same things that the old laws did. There’s no reason to wait in order to bring in alternative legislation. The government can move now to repeal the law and that’s a fairly simple procedure. That’s what we’d like to see done.”

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But it remains unclear when or if such a move would take place.

Although the Liberals opposed the Conservatives’ Bill C-36, it is not known if they would refer the Harper law to the Supreme Court for guidance, or repeal the law and replace it with something else. A spokesman did not immediately respond to request for comment.

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The Liberal party has previously said the new law, which passed last fall, is likely unconstitutional. Former justice minister Peter MacKay defended the bill as necessary to protect exploited people, and an Ontario review of the legislation upheld it.

Watch: Sex worker advocates protest against Harper government’s prostitution bill


“I am not at all convinced that this bill would protect the women and men who are engaged in sex work,” Charlottetown Liberal MP Sean Casey, who was re-elected, told the House of Commons in June 2014.  “I would also suggest that Bill C-36, in all likelihood, violates the charter with respect to section 7, on life, liberty, and security of the person.”

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Casey, a lawyer who was the party’s justice critic, is considered a contender to be the new justice minister when Justin Trudeau’s cabinet is sworn in next week.

The new law regulating sex work in Canada was crafted in response to a Supreme Court challenge from sex workers Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott. Pivot was an intervener in the case.

The Supreme Court struck down the old laws relating to “bawdy” houses and living off the avails of prostitution as unconstitutional. But many experts believe the Conservatives’ replacement legislation, which criminalizes communicating and advertising about sex work as well as prevents workers from banding together, is also unconstitutional and further pushes prostitution underground, thus making it more dangerous.

Defence lawyer Michael Spratt says the issue is a good example “of the conundrum that the Liberals are going to find themselves in” when it comes to the Harper government’s justice agenda.

“There are numerous pieces of legislation that the Liberals strongly opposed, in my view rightly so, but were passed into law.”

Spratt says these changes will not come quickly.

“A new challenge launched to Bill C-36 would take months and years to wind its way through the court,” he said. “Legislative changes will obviously take time to make their way through Parliament. So I think no matter what happens there’s going to be some lag time before these issues are fixed.”

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But Belak believes the Liberals can move quickly to at least repeal the Harper government’s laws.

“It’s something that we’d like to see done immediately,” she said.

“Sex workers fought for basically seven years to get the old laws revoked, and during that time many people were put in danger, many people were forced to work under risky circumstances, and there’s no reason to continue to subject sex workers to those conditions.”

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