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Sex-trade workers consent to grace period on prostitution laws

Sex worker Teri-Jean Bedford, left, and Valerie Scott of Sex Professionals of Canada, right, address the media following an Ontario court ruling striking down prostitution laws on Sep 28, 2010.

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

A group of prostitutes who felled the country's prostitution laws two weeks ago are willing to support a four-month moratorium before the landmark ruling comes into effect - for a price.

The group said on Tuesday that it will consent to the laws continuing until February, provided a Crown appeal of the Ontario decision is heard swiftly.

The offer prevents a potentially chaotic situation from erupting later this fall when Ontario Superior Court Judge Susan Himel's ruling takes effect and prostitution is decriminalized.

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Judge Himel found that laws set up to protect prostitutes actually endanger them, forcing furtive and hasty transactions in shady locations.

She said that her decision would take effect in 30 days unless Crown lawyers could persuade her to grant a delay. With the support of the group of prostitutes, chances of winning a four-month moratorium are excellent.

In an interim move on Tuesday, the applicants and the federal Crown bought time to negotiate by jointly agreeing to a briefer, additional moratorium that will expire on Nov. 28.

York University law professor Alan Young - the moving force behind the prostitution challenge - said that Judge Himel has accepted the proposal.

The moves are the latest twists in a continuing struggle over laws governing solicitation, pimping and keeping a brothel.

Prof. Young said that his offer recognizes the fact that governments need time to assess and respond properly to rulings that carry such vast ramifications.

"The issue of whether or not a constitutionally invalid law should remain in force pending appeal is a serious issue which should not be resolved in a precipitous manner without a careful consideration of the impact of the invalidation," Prof. Young said.

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If the appeal process is not expedited, he said that it could take up to five years for the Supreme Court of Canada to settle the issue.

"In my view, having the impugned law remain in force for a further two to three months is a small price to pay for having the appeal heard with such great dispatch," Prof. Young said.

Carole Saindon, a spokesperson for the federal Justice Department, said that the Crown plans to apply to the Ontario Court of Appeal for a stay of Judge Himel's decision pending its appeal being heard.

Judge Himel's unexpected decision ignited the prostitution debate across the nation. It also caused immediate confusion among police and community activists, who braced for an onslaught of street prostitutes, grungy pimps and inconsiderate johns.

Prostitutes were divided on the ruling. Some applauded it as a move toward ending the constant jeopardy that many of them face as they ply their trade. Others feared being caught in red tape as they deal with health inspectors, tax collectors and licensing officials as a result of decriminalization.

One of the litigants in the case, Valerie Scott, said that she is keen to start creating legal sex-trade businesses.

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"I have plans for a brothel that specializes in physically disabled gentlemen," Ms. Scott said in an interview. "I've been seeing disabled clients since I was in my mid-20s."

Ms. Scott said that she has already been accepted into a business course at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, "with their full knowledge of why I will be taking the course."

Advocates of decriminalization have an intricate series of proposals for workable regulations and bylaws that will include community involvement and complaints processes for residents, prostitutes or clients, Ms. Scott added.

Prof. Young said that, in an ideal world, the federal government would have responded to Judge Himel's ruling by repealing the existing provisions and working on law-reform measures to address the safety and security concerns she raised.

"Leaving the status of the current law open to debate does not serve the public interest, and we will do whatever we can to expedite final resolution of the issue of whether the existing legal regime will be given a second life," he said.

"If this timetable cannot be achieved, we will not consent to any further extensions of the stay and the federal Crown will then need to seek a court order at a contested hearing if it wishes to extend the stay."

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Justice reporter

Born in Montreal, Aug. 3, 1954. BA (Journalism) Ryerson, 1979. Previously covered environment beat, Queen's Park. Toronto courts bureau from 1981-85. Justice beat from 1985 - present. More

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