A ban on brothels puts prostitutes at risk and is unconstitutional, Ontario's top court has ruled, in a case that is expected to be appealed to Canada's top court and have ramifications for the country at large.
"The world in which street prostitutes actually operate is a world of dark streets and barren, isolated, silent places," said the five-judge Ontario Court of Appeal panel in their ruling on Monday. "It is a dangerous world, with always the risk of violence and even death."
The panel also said that rules against profitting from prostitution should apply only to "circumstances of exploitation" to prevent pimps from exploiting sex workers.
The change will allow police to prosecute violent and manipulative pimps while at the same time permitting sex workers to hire drivers or body guards to protect them, the court said.
At the same time, the court said concerns about the nuisance created by street prostitution are real, having a "profound impact on the members of the surrounding community", and it upheld the ban on soliciting for the purposes of selling sex.
The Ontario Court of Appeal decision gives the government a year to rewrite the law if it chooses, and legal teams on both sides of the issue have 60 days to appeal Monday's decision to the Supreme Court of Canada before the law takes effect.
'Prostitution is bad'
Julie Di Mambro, a spokesperson for Canada's Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, said the government is reviewing Monday's ruling and its legal options.
"As the Prime Minister has said, prostitution is bad for society and harmful to communities, women and vulnerable persons," she said.
"We continue to see a social need for laws to control prostitution and its effects on society."
Ontario Attorney General John Gerretsen said the Ontario government is considering appealing the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Terri-Jean Bedford, who makes her living as a dominatrix, has argued that Canada's sex trade laws force workers from the safety of their homes to face violence on the streets.
Valerie Scott, a former sex worker who launched the challenge with Bedford, said prostitutes are safer when they do not have to work in the streets.
She said that sex workers will now be able to call police and report a dangerous client.
'Law is following'
"I'd like to thank the Ontario Court of Appeal justices for pretty much declaring sex workers persons today," Scott said.
"I didn't think I'd see it in my lifetime, but here we are."
Alan Young, the lawyer for the women, called the decision a win for sex trade workers and society.
"Canadian society will not collapse or even flinch under the weight of this decision," Young said.
"Eighty per cent [of sex workers] have moved indoors. The movement has already occurred, and now the law is following afterward."
"It has not created a large infrastructure and business enterprise for the sex trade, but what it has done is that it's opened up the law enough so that people who choose to enter the sex trade, which is a legal choice, will now be able to avail themselves of certain types of safety measures that previously the law in a very callous way said, 'We don't care, suffer'."
Prostitution itself is not illegal in Canada, but pimping, operating a brothel and communicating for the purposes of selling sex have all been considered criminal acts.
A lower court judge ruled in 2010 the prostitution-related laws were unconstitutional in that they contributed to the dangers faced by prostitutes.