Clear as Mud – Seeing through Canada’s Changing Prostitution Laws

Canadian Prostitution Laws

Given the large volume of explicit ads for sexual services found in Lower Mainland print publications, many people in Surrey, Vancouver and other cities wonder whether prostitution is legal in Canada. If you are reading this before December 6th, 2014, paying for sex in Canada with someone over 18 years of age is not a criminal offence. Rather, certain activities surrounding prostitution are illegal (including communicating in a public place for the purposes of exchanging money for sex, living off the profits of prostitution, and operating or being in a ‘bawdy house’). However, Canada’s prostitution laws are changing December 6th, 2014


Last year, the existing prostitution laws in Canada were challenged and found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada. The government wrote bill C-36 to replace the unconstitutional laws. When the new laws come into effect, it will be the first time that the act of buying sex will be illegal in Canada.

The court found that the existing laws violated sex workers’ constitutional rights to Security of the Person. The court held that while the laws were intended to prevent a public nuisance, their effect was to jeopardize the safety of street prostitutes. The law prevented sex workers from taking safety measures like screening clients in public, working in a safe location they are familiar with, or paying others to help them stay safe. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin mentioned serial killer Robert Pickton in her judgment and held that “Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes”.

According to Justice Minister Peter MacKay, the new laws target “johns and pimps – those that treat sex services as a commodity.” It is now an offence to purchase sex and to communicate for the purposes of purchasing it. Those communications are illegal in “any place”, not just in public. Advertising sexual services in print or on the internet is now an offence (except that sex workers are permitted to advertise their own sexual services), as is receiving a financial or material benefit from the prostitution of others. There are some additional new laws, including one that makes it an offence to communicate to sell sex near schools or daycares.

The government believes their new sexual offence laws relating to prostitution will encourage sex workers to abandon prostitution. However, some criminal defence lawyers and sex worker advocates believe that prostitution is not going away that the new laws just as dangerous to prostitutes because they force the sex industry further underground. Others say that decriminalizing prostitution is the only approach that will protect women. Time will tell whether the new laws will also be challenged on the grounds that they create disproportionate safety risks, and violate the workers’  constitutional right to Security of Person.

While waiting for any constitutional challenge, it will be interesting to see how the new laws are enforced. Law enforcement has some discretion in applying the law and the Vancouver Police Department‘s enforcement guidelines state that “sex work involving consenting adults is not an enforcement priority for the VPD”.  They could of course still choose to enforce the law at any time. The RCMP, Surrey, and other local police departments, may have different enforcement priorities. If you or someone you know is charged with a sexual offence, speak to one of our Surrey criminal lawyers as soon as possible. The sooner you speak to a Surrey criminal lawyer, the more likely youll get the help you need in navigating this shifting legal landscape and mounting the best possible defence.