This Takes Precedence! How the Bedford Case Empowers Legal Precedent

The Bedford case is interesting on many levels. On the public level, it recognizes the modern realities of what historically has been considered a vice in our society. On the private level, it recognizes the harshness of the prostitution laws on those whom the laws were meant to protect. On the Charter level, it recognizes the breadth of the principles of fundamental justice in our society while giving shape and meaning to the phrase “life, liberty and security of the person.” Finally, on the legal jurisprudence level, the case recognizes the importance of a flexible concept of case precedent.

In a previous posting, I discussed a judge’s use of legal and factual analogy to come to a decision in a case. The concept of legal precedent, whereby a decision is made based on previous similar decisions typically from a superior level of court, not only provides a solid basis for a decision, it also gives the decision an aura of authority and power. Power, in the sense of persuasive power.Authority, as in the correctness or soundness of the decision. It is a remarkable tool, which serves a dual purpose: the power and authority arising from precedent maintains the rule of law in the legal sphere and in the public sphere. Precedent, used appropriately, empowers the words of the court and gives them the force of the law. For further discussion on the coercive power of judicial pronouncements, see my postings here on Robert Cover and his seminal essay on “Violence and The Word.”

In Bedford, the majority needed to deal with the issue of legal precedent to lend their decision an air of legitimacy. The prostitution laws at issue had already been the subject of previous constitutional arguments before the highest level of court: the Supreme Court of Canada. To make pronouncements again and by a lower court seemed officious and redundant. In the case of the prostitution laws, the stakes were even higher as the laws were the second-generation iteration of what were originally known as the “soliciting laws.”

In the 1980s, after the advent of the Charter, the government was forced to change the soliciting laws as a result of the Supreme Court of Canada’s interpretation of the word “solicit” as found in the section. The original section prohibited “everyone who solicits any person in a public place for purposes of prostitution."

In the 1978 Hutt case, the Supreme Court of Canada defined “solicit” as pressing and persistent conduct. Hutt, a 23 year-old prostitute working on the infamous Davie Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, had made eye contact with a potential client driving slowly by her. Hutt smiled and the client, an undercover police officer, smiled back and stopped his car. Hutt jumped into the car, agreed on the cost of her services, and was promptly arrested. The SCC, by defining “soliciting,” found that a mere nod of a head was not enough to fulfill the actus reus or prohibited act requirements under the section. Soliciting required something more than just agreeing to sex for money. It required the prostitute to accost and importune, not just smile.

The result of the decision was explosive: the police refused to lay charges under the section. This public pressure caused the government to finally change the section in 1985 to the present day offence of communication for the purpose of prostitution under s. 213 of the Criminal Code. The meaning of “communication” is much broader than “solicits.” One can communicate through word or gesture and would most certainly describe Hutt’s contact with the undercover officer.

But that was not the end to the narrative. The new section, created in the new Charter era, was further scrutinized; not on the basis of nomenclature but on the basis of constitutionality. This was done preemptively through a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada. As discussed in previous posting, a reference permits the court to pre-vet an issue and to make pronouncements on the efficacy of legislation before it is enacted and subject to legal attack. In the Reference on the prostitution sections, the Court found the new communication for the purpose of prostitution laws were inconsistent with freedom of expression under s. 2(b0 of the Charter but were justified in a free and democratic society and thus appropriate.

Fast forward to today and the similarities are apparent. One of the arguments in the Bedford case, attacked the constitutionality of the very same communication section as previously considered by the SCC. In that instance, the Bedford decision sits solidly behind legal precedent by dismissing the argument as already decided by another, more authoritative court. The more interesting issue is the constitutionality of the other prostitution related charges: keeping a common bawdy house under s.210 and living off the avails under s.212(1)(j). It is here the court relied on a more flexible and contextual approach to legal precedent, while still upholding the concept of court hierarchy.

Two scenarios were discussed. One scenario contemplated the ability of a trial court or lower level court, to permit counsel to build a record of evidence, which would then form the foundation of a future argument before a higher and thus more authoritative court. This higher level court would be in the position to revisit the issue to determine if the passage of time has changed the issue to require a new and different look at the issues involved. The other scenario, contemplates situations where the issues to be argued may be related but are framed differently enough that a decision on the matter is not tied by the rules of legal precedent. This flexibility permitted the court in Bedford to come to a decision on the case and to tackle, head-on, the modern paradox found in the overly broad prostitution sections.

Although the passages on precedent are not the crux of the Bedford case, the court’s view of the issue brings or shall we say, drags, traditional legal principles into the 21st century and beyond.