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Canada ratifies new prostitution law targeting the buyers of illicit sex

OTTAWA/TORONTO--Canada's attorney general unveiled a law Wednesday that makes it legal to sell sex to individuals but illegal to buy it, after the high court struck down an anti-prostitution law.

The new law switches the focus of criminal charges from sellers of sex to potential buyers and prohibits advertising sexual services.

“We're targeting Johns and pimps, those that treat sexual services as a commodity,” Justice Minister and Attorney General Peter MacKay.

He said the measure will endeavor to protect communities as well as vulnerable people, “and recognizes the inherent dangers associated with prostitution.”

Under the law, penalties will range from a CA$1,000 fine to 14 years in prison.

The Supreme Court in December struck down key provisions of the original law that effectively criminalized prostitution, saying that they endangered prostitutes.

But the high court stayed its unanimous decision for one year to allow Parliament to consider whether or not to impose other limits on where and how prostitution may be conducted.

The legal challenge was brought by three sex workers who argued that Canada's restrictions on prostitution — criminalizing keeping a brothel, living off prostitution or soliciting sex in public — put their safety at risk.

The three Toronto women — Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott — argued that prohibiting brothels, for example, endangered prostitutes by forcing them to seek customers on street corners.

The law, they said, had also prevented them from taking safety measures such as hiring security guards or screening potential clients in an effort to protect themselves from violence.

They called for the right to open brothels to provide a safer environment for prostitutes.

A lower court found the measures, aimed largely at curbing nuisance crimes linked to prostitution, to be “arbitrary, overbroad or grossly disproportionate,” and indeed put sex workers at risk.

The top court agreed, saying the curbs infringe on prostitutes' “constitutional right to security of the person.”

Angela Campbell, a law professor at Montreal's McGill university, said the proposal does little to protect sex workers and is merely an opportunity for the Conservatives to push their law and order agenda.

“The crime of purchasing and advertising sex services, those were not offenses before, and they are now,” she said. “It will allow for greater use of police resources, the courts and the prison system to get on this sort of tack that the Conservatives have been on since day one, which is essentially to ensure there is sort of a moral order in place.”

Emilie Laliberte, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, said the new law “let down all Canadian sex workers,” and she predicted it would end up before the Supreme Court again in a few years.

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