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A prostitute looks for customers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on Feb. 9, 2009. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
A prostitute looks for customers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on Feb. 9, 2009. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Police, communities struggle to grasp prostitution ruling Add to ...

Governments were in disarray and at least one prostitution charge was withdrawn by the Crown Wednesday as the effects of a landmark ruling that decriminalized prostitution in Ontario began to be felt.

The ruling also left police confused and neighbourhoods fortifying to fend off a possible deluge of sex-trade workers.

When the dust settles around the prostitution decision, experts predict that municipalities across the country will pass bylaws and licensing systems based on their own local community standards and political realities.

"We could end up with a bizarre patchwork of regulation across the country," said Simon Fraser University criminology professor John Lowman. "Nor, is there any guarantee that municipalities are going to do any better at this than the feds. It depends upon the attitude they take to a highly divisive issue in Canadian society."

While they publicly warn the decision will end up victimizing prostitutes, the Harper Conservatives are also privately grumbling at what they consider judicial activism on the Ontario bench. One Tory MP said he believed that judges should not be making social policy. "That is exclusively the jurisdiction of Parliament," the Ontario MP said.

Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the ministry, said that the province intends to join the federal government in appealing the decision. In the meantime, he said, Ontario will ask for the ruling to be suspended until an appeal has been heard.

In the wake of the decision, chaos reigned for supporters and detractors of decriminalization. Sex-trade workers braced for an onslaught of bureaucratic red tape - including health inspectors, tax collectors and licensing officials.

"One of first things they will try to do is force us against our will to identify ourselves and provide information about who we are, where we reside and where we work," said Amber, a 36-year-old Toronto sex worker. "There is absolutely no way I am prepared to be on any kind of public registry.

"They can get rid of laws, but the stigmatization of sex workers is going to be around for hundreds of years," she said, adding that most sex workers feel as she does. "Sex workers know how to get around the law." "

Bruce Ryder, a York University law professor, said that sex workers are making a mistake if they think that they have been "liberated" by the ruling. "It may even turn out that status quo of legal enforcement could shift into a much more intrusive and detailed system of control," he said.

"Licensing schemes could be highly restrictive and fees could be high," he said. "Zoning bylaws could be used to restrict bawdy houses to particular parts of a city."

Prof. Lowman predicted that a coming welter of bylaws, fees and regulations may drive many sex workers back into running illicit operations beyond the reach of the law.

In her 133-page ruling, Ontario Superior Court Judge Susan Himel struck down three key Criminal Code provisions: communicating for the purpose of prostitution, pimping and operating a common bawdy house.

Judge Himel found that laws set up to protect prostitutes actually endanger their safety, forcing them to furtively engage in hasty transactions conducted in shady locations.

Her decision will take effect in 30 days unless Crown lawyers return with arguments that are strong enough to persuade her to grant a further delay.

Confusion reigned Wednesday in Ontario's law enforcement community. A Toronto Police Service spokesman said that the force is awaiting direction from the Ministry of the Attorney-General.

The Crown, meanwhile, withdrew at least one prostitute-related charge. Alan Young, a York University law professor who spearheaded Tuesday's successful challenge, said that one of his law students witnessed a communications charge being withdrawn in a suburban Toronto courthouse on the basis of Judge Himel's ruling. "It's having an immediate impact," he said.

In downtown Toronto, neighbourhood activists were steeling themselves for a battle to save their neighbourhoods.

"What planet does this judge live on?" asked Lisa Stephens Immen, former chairman of an umbrella group of resident associations known as The Neighbourhoods' Forum. "I hope that all the naive fools who support this ruling will be gifted with the task of picking up the used condoms in their own nice neighbourhoods."

Prof. Ryder said that police are going to find themselves under intense pressure to prevent a breakout of street prostitution. However, he was skeptical about the prospect of prostitutes taking to the streets to brazenly solicit customers.

Police still have numerous charges they can use to control street solicitation, he said - including nuisance charges, traffic regulations and prohibiting public annoyances.

Prof. Lowman said that defence lawyers outside Ontario will soon seek to persuade judges to follow Judge Himel's lead.

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