Two sex workers who were dragged through the courts for sharing a workplace just to keep each other safe are celebrating after charges against them were dropped.
The extraordinary climbdown saw the Crown Prosecution Service accused of trying to extort cash from the pair by forcing them to hand over their earnings. The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), a campaign group that fought their side, has said the Crown’s decision to abandon proceedings strengthens the case to decriminalise prostitution altogether.
It came after thousands of people wrote to the CPS in outrage that the women were being prosecuted instead of protected.
One of the pair, named only as Ms O, said: “They said I was a criminal but I am a good mother working to make sure my child has a better life.
“I worked with my friend because it’s safer. Thank goodness that I was sent angels like the ECP girls to help me. I would never have been able to fight this on my own.”
Before the charges were dropped, they had been repeatedly downgraded, with the CPS latterly offering them police cautions in exchange for the cash cops seized during a raid.
The women, Ms O and Ms R, were raided by police on September 19 and charged with “managing a brothel” – even though neither woman’s name was actually on the tenancy of the Surrey property.
During the raid, police took all of the money on the premises – about £1,000 – without giving a receipt.
As well as not being listed on the property’s tenancy, the women, who are friends, were not forcing each other to work. Due to current laws around brothel-keeping – the laws under which the women were prosecuted – some sex workers are too fearful to work together at the same location and as a result often compromise their safety by working alone.
In this case the women, who are both migrants, had prioritised their safety and were sending money back to Brazil to support their families.
The pair believe they were reported by a vindictive client who had attempted to extort free sex from them.
Determined to fight the case and backed by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), the women pleaded not guilty during a hearing at North Surrey Magistrates Court.
The ECP also lobbied for supporters to write to the CPS, demanding the charges be dropped. The ECP estimates that several thousand people did this.
A template letter drafted by the EPC and addressed to Frank Ferguson, chief crown prosecutor for CPS south east, pointed out:
“The implications of prosecuting Ms O and Ms R are very serious. What sex worker in Surrey is now going to risk bringing herself to the attention of the police if they need to report a violent assailant? Prosecuting women for working together for safety contravenes police guidelines and a parliamentary report that sex workers should be decriminalised. Growing evidence points to massive increases in prostitution because of poverty and that criminalising women puts them at greater risk of violence.”
In England and Wales the acts of buying and selling sex are not in themselves illegal but associated activities such as soliciting, kerb crawling and brothel-keeping are outlawed.
While the CPS did not comment on the action arranged by the ECP, the women were then offered a deal where, if they accepted cautions, the charges would be dropped – with the (rather significant) proviso that they forfeited the monies seized by police during the raid.
Because cautions show up on DBS checks and on police certificates used in immigration cases, the women refused this offer.
The CPS then reduced the charges to “permitting a premises to be used for prostitution”, before dropping the charges entirely – on the day both women attended court to fight their case.
The collective’s Laura Watson said: “These charges should never have been brought. Ms O and Ms R were working in a flat together for safety and supporting their families.
“Both women are migrant and we believe that racism was involved in why they were targeted. The police and CPS seemed to have thought that it would be harder for women, worried about their immigration status, to defend themselves against these unjust charges.
“But because of their courage and with the support of the ECP and the thousands of people who wrote to protest, they have been able to leave court without a conviction”.
Both women wept with relief upon hearing the news the charges had been dropped.
Niki Adams from Legal Action for Women accompanied the women to court. She said: “This case could have set a dangerous precedent in that any sex worker could easily be convicted of permitting her co-worker to work.
“If this charge was applied to other workers the absurdity is clear – would a hairdresser who rents a chair in a salon be permitting her co-worker to work?
“We are also disgusted that the CPS tried to extort money from women offering them a caution on the condition that they ‘write over the money seized on their arrest’. Taking money from sex workers under duress is tantamount to pimping.”
The ECP believes the case strengthens calls for decriminalisation, something a major Commons report in 2016 urged.
In steps outlined by the Home Affairs Select committee’s interim report, it was argued that brothel-keeping rules should also be adapted so prostitutes can share premises rather than placing themselves at risk by working alone.
In another measure, MPs called for previous convictions and cautions for prostitution to be deleted from sex workers’ records.
The committee raised concerns that treating soliciting as an offence stops sex workers seeking help to leave prostitution, and exposes them to abuse and violence. Having a criminal record for prostitution-related offences often creates an insurmountable barrier for those wishing to move into “regular” work, the study said.
It also echoed concerns that current laws on brothel-keeping mean women afraid of prosecution often compromise their safety by working alone.
In recent years it has become apparent that austerity cuts have pushed more women, particularly single mothers, into prostitution.
A range of legal regimes on prostitution are in place around the world, with France and Northern Ireland recently passing laws that made it illegal to pay for sex.
In 1999, Sweden became the first country to introduce a model that criminalised buying sex – but not selling it. New Zealand is the only country to have decriminalised sex work, in 2003, though it is not legal for migrants. Sex workers there have successfully prosecuted brothel keepers for sexual harassment and clients for removing condoms.