BC’s Court of Appeal has given the go-ahead to a landmark legal challenge that may improve working conditions for sex workers, advocates say.
Sheri Kiselbach and Sex Workers United Against Violence won the right to challenge prostitution laws in BC’s Supreme Court on Oct. 12.
Darcie Bennett, campaigns director with Pivot Legal Society, said the goal of the challenge is to remove the barriers that criminalization puts in the way of sex workers taking measures to keep themselves safe.
The case is similar to a recent Ontario Superior Court ruling that struck down three main criminal code sections related to sex work.
The BC case will challenge the constitutional validity of four sections of the Criminal Code of Canada that criminalize a number of associated behaviours to the sex trade.
With a change to the law, sex workers will be able to legally work inside and hire security. Those that work on the street will be able to negotiate with customers and feel confident in reporting violent incidents to police.
Kiselbach, a former sex worker who works as the Violence Prevention Coordinator with Prostitution Alternatives Counseling and Education Society, said the existing law makes sex trade workers “afraid to be very blunt and very open” about the services they are providing, which ultimately affects their safety.
Kiselbach said that not having the time to negotiate boundaries and properly evaluate the customer leads to situations where the sex worker is at risk of violence or theft.
Prostitution itself is not illegal in Canada, but there are criminal code provisions that criminalize associated acts.
Much of the prosecution related to prostitution is under section 213 of the criminal code. Section 213, one of the contested sections, prohibits communication in a public place for the purposes of prostitution.
Susan Davis is a sex worker for 24 years who has worked both on the streets of the Downtown Eastside and indoors.
She says that the communication provision of the criminal code puts sex workers at risk of violence.
“The traditional picture you see of the girl leaning in the window of the car, she’s negotiating her terms of employment,” said Davis.
“Because communication in public is illegal, workers are forced to jump into the car and drive away before negotiating.”
Other sections challenged
Sections 210, 211 and 212 of the criminal code prohibit the keeping of a bawdy house, transporting a person to a bawdy house and procuring.
Kiselbach says that these provisions criminalize sex workers who try to move indoors or pay for someone to protect them.
“If I have a person, whether man or woman, that’s watching my back, and I have a place that I go to, that person could be charged with procuring, living off the avails.”
“When in fact that person is just absolutely there for my own safety, my benefit.”
The BC Court of Appeal ruling comes as a number of violent incidents involving survival sex workers have been reported on the east side of the city.
A Vancouver sex trade worker was shot with a pellet gun on Oct. 9, police said. One week later, another sex worker was allegedly abducted from the 3000-block of Kingsway and stabbed. A suspect was apprehended but no charges have been laid.
The BC challenge to prostitution laws also comes at the same time as a commissioner for the Pickton inquiry has been appointed.
Former attorney general Wally Oppal will be leading an inquiry into the police investigation of convicted killer Robert Pickton.
Pickton was found guilty of second-degree murder of six women who worked in the sex trade in the Downtown Eastside.
There are 61 names on the list of women missing from the neighbourhood.