The Supreme Court has put the Harper government — and Justice Minister Peter MacKay — in the difficult position of having to reform Canada’s prostitution laws.

Here are some of the key changes proposed in the Conservatives’ Bill C-36.

Why A New Law?
Last December, in a case known as Bedford, the Supreme Court of Canada threw out existing prostitution laws, saying they violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court gave the government a year to bring in new legislation.

In particular: The high court struck down all three prostitution-related prohibitions — keeping a brothel, living on the avails of prostitution and street soliciting — as violations of the constitutional guarantee to life, liberty and security of the person.

The decision upheld a 2012 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that said the law exposed sex workers to added danger by forcing them onto the streets. It also rejected the argument that the old law was meant to promote the values of dignity and equality.

And it found that the purpose of banning communication for the purposes of prostitution — a measure intended merely to take the practice out of public view — created an unacceptable risk to its practitioners.

There are different approaches to prostitution across the world. In some countries, such as New Zealand, it is legal and regulated under labour and public health laws. In the United States it is illegal in all but a few counties in Nevada. The so-called Nordic model, followed in Norway, Sweden and Iceland, makes buying sex illegal, while selling it is not.

Old Law
Selling sex was legal, but living in a bawdy house or brothel was illegal, as was living off the profits of another’s prostitution and soliciting sex in public.

New Law
Selling sex remains legal, but buying it becomes a criminal offence. It will also be illegal for anyone to communicate for the purpose of prostitution and prohibits advertising the sexual services of others.

The government says the bill will protect vulnerable women and keep communities safe by allowing prostitutes to rent apartments, screen clients, hire a receptionist or security guard, and advertise their own services.

Sex workers say that because buying sex remains a criminal offence, the new law will drive prostitutes back into dark alleys and industrial zones, leaving them at risk.

IN QUOTES: Beverley McLachlin
“These appeals and the cross-appeal are not about whether prostitution should be legal or not. They are about whether the laws Parliament has enacted on how prostitution may be carried out pass constitutional muster. I conclude that they do not.” — Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing the decision in the Bedford case.

IN QUOTES: Peter MacKay
“We believe prostitution is inherently dangerous and exploitative.” — Justice Minister Peter MacKay, testifying at a Commons committee.

IN QUOTES: Stephen Harper
“They are not harmful because they are illegal. They are illegal because they are harmful.” — Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking of activities in the sex trade.