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VANCOUVER (Reuters) - An Ontario court tossed out key provisions of Canada's anti-prostitution laws on Tuesday, saying they did more harm than good, following a constitutional challenge by three sex-trade workers.
Prostitution is not itself illegal in Canada, but nearly every activity associated with it is, such as communicating for the purposes of prostitution, living off its avails or operating a common bawdy house.
The sex-trade workers who launched the constitutional challenge argued the restrictions forced them to work in secrecy and on the street, and thus made them more vulnerable to violence from both clients and pimps.
Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice agreed, ruling the laws forced prostitutes to work in conditions where the dangers they faced outweighed any harm that easing restrictions on prostitution would have on the general public.
"This means that we no longer have to be afraid. That we can work with the appropriate authorities ... working together in and of itself prevents a lot of violence," said Valerie Scott, an advocate for sex-trade workers' rights in Toronto.
Although Tuesday's ruling only stops enforcement of the laws in Ontario, it can be used as grounds to strike down similar laws in Canada's other provinces.
The government and several conservative groups who had defended the laws in court were expected to appeal Tuesday's ruling, and the court granted a 30-day stay to allow officials time to deal with any changes.
The federal government will likely appeal the ruling, officials said.
"We will fight to ensure that the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to both communities and the prostitutes themselves, along with other vulnerable persons," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in a written statement.
Scott said the ruling did not mean there was going to be a sudden increase in prostitution, and the court's ruling does not affect laws prohibiting underage prostitution.
"There is no reason (for the public) to be afraid. Lightning bolts will not hit the sidewalk," she told a Toronto news conference.
The ruling came the same day British Columbia named former Attorney General Wally Oppal to head an inquiry into why police were slow to catch a serial killer who preyed for more than a decade on drug-addicted prostitutes in Vancouver's poor Downtown Eastside neighborhood.
Robert "Willie" Pickton was found guilty of killing six women, but police say they the remains or DNA of more than 30 missing drug addicts and prostitutes were found on his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia.
Many of the victims were aboriginal, and the province said it would also host a national summit next year on the problems faced by poor aboriginal women who have been marginalized in Canadian society.
Reporting Allan Dowd and David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson