The Supreme Court of Canada struck down all current restrictions on prostitution yesterday, including bans on brothels and on street solicitation, declaring them unconstitutional because they violated prostitutes' safety.
The sweeping 9-0 decision will take effect in one year, inviting Parliament to try to come up with some other way to regulate the sex trade if it chooses to do so.
Prostitution is technically legal in Canada but most related activities have been illegal, including living off the earnings of someone else's prostitution, but the court found that the provisions were overly broad or grossly disproportionate.
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said many prostitutes "have no meaningful choice" but to "engage in the risky economic activity of prostitution", and that the law should not make such lawful activity more dangerous.
"It makes no difference that the conduct of pimps and johns is the immediate source of the harms suffered by prostitutes," she wrote.
"The impugned laws deprive people engaged in a risky, but legal, activity of the means to protect themselves against those risks."
One current prostitute and two former ones, including a dominatrix, had initiated the challenge to Canada's laws. They argued that sex workers would be safer if they were allowed to screen clients and operate in brothels with bodyguards if they chose.
McLachlin dismissed the federal government's argument that it was prostitution itself, not the laws that govern it, that puts prostitutes at risk.
The safety of prostitutes became a high-profile issue after the 2007 conviction of serial killer Robert Pickton, who preyed on prostitutes and other women in Vancouver.
McLachlin said her decision "does not mean that Parliament is precluded from imposing limits on where and how prostitution may be conducted", noting that various provisions were intertwined.