Australia: Decriminalised: The NSW laws governing sex work

Last Updated: 22 August 2019
Article by Paul Gregoire

NSW was the first jurisdiction in the world to decriminalise adult sex work. And the outcomes have been lauded globally. Indeed, in a 2016 report, the NSW government stated that decriminalisation is the best way to ensure sex worker safety and maintain transparency within the industry.

The process of decriminalising adult sex work in this state began in 1979 with the removal of criminal sanctions around certain aspects of street-based work. But, it wasn't until 1995 that legislation was passed that saw most aspects of the NSW sex industry decriminalised.

At the time NSW moved to a decriminalisation model, the state was reeling from the fallout caused by the Wood Royal Commission into NSW Police, which found that there was "a clear nexus between police corruption and the operation of brothels".

Almost two decades following decriminalisation, the 2012 LASH report stated that the sex industry in NSW had not increased in size, there were no incidents of police corruption around it, and the mental and sexual health levels of sex workers were similar to that of the general population.

In 2003, the entire nation of New Zealand became the second jurisdiction in the world to decriminalise sex work. And Amnesty International has adopted a policy of sex work decriminalisation, which is supported by a growing number of civil society organisations.

An evidence-based model for the future

The legislation that established the NSW decriminalisation model was the Disorderly Houses Amendment Act 1995 (NSW). The laws removed criminal sanctions around the operation of brothels and living off the earnings of sex work for those involved in the running of such premises.

"The Disorderly Houses Amendment Act," Urban Realists principal Julie Bates AO told Sydney Criminal Lawyers, "has only been used once against a deemed rogue operator and the individual was thus legally prevented from running their own business and had to sell on."

The long-time sex workers rights advocate added that this "tells you that brothels are not in and of themselves disorderly – creating amenity impacts in their neighbourhoods – as some detractors would still have you believe".

The amendment bill was a response to "the Wood inquiry into corrupt coppers", the 1986 Rogan inquiry report and 1988's NSW Court of Criminal Appeal case Sibuse versus Shaw, which found that existing laws could lead to the widespread shut down of brothels and a surge in street work, which had been largely decriminalised.

When the now repealed Prostitution Act 1979 (NSW) was passed, it didn't include the former offence of soliciting in a public street. Although, a 1983 amendment bill reinstated the offence, when it's carried out "near a dwelling, school, church or hospital".

Amending disorderly houses

The Disorderly Houses Amendment Act altered the Restricted Premises Act 1943 – known in 1995 as the Disorderly Houses Act. It amended the standing legislation, so as to prevent the Supreme Court being able to order the shut down brothels solely based on them being sex work premises.

The Sibuse versus Shaw ruling found that in 1988 the Restricted Premises Act allowed for brothels to be closed simply because they were brothels, without any "disorderly" circumstances needed to be occurring on site in order to warrant the closure.

Shortly after Sibuse, it was found that NSW police had since applied for 40 of the state's estimated 260 brothels to be closed. And in 1992, then NSW attorney general Peter Collins asserted that these circumstances could force sex workers "back onto the streets".

The amendment legislation added section 17 to the Restricted Premises Act. It permits local councils to apply to the Land and Environment Court to have a brothel shut. However, this only applies after a council has received a sufficient number of complaints to warrant the application.

The new legislation also inserted section 580C into the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which abolished common law offences around running brothels. While a change to the Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW) made living off the earnings of sex work no longer an offence for brothel owners, managers or employees.

Standing summary offences

There are a number of offences relating to sex work contained in part 3 of the Summary Offences Act that still apply today. When this act came into play in 1988, it repealed the Prostitution Act and incorporated the offences that were contained in it.

Section 15 of the Summary Act makes it a crime for a person over the age of 18 to live off the earnings of sex work carried out by another individual. And section 16 makes it illegal to solicit sex work in premises reserved for "massage, sauna baths, steam baths or facilities for physical exercise".

Section 15A is a recent addition made by the Disorderly Houses Amendment Act, which contains the offence of coercing or inducing another to commit an act of sex work. The legislation also outlaws the advertising of both sex workers and sex work premises.

And conducting sex work in public or in a vehicle within view of a school, church, hospital, public place or dwelling is also against the law, due to the provisions of the act.

Decriminalisation to broaden

"Down through the ages sex workers have enjoyed privilege and were revered without criminal sanctions," Ms Bates related. "In relatively modern times, around the end of the 19th century/early 20th century, we see criminalisation creeping in."

"But, we are now witnessing a growing international movement of sex worker rights organisations and allies challenging end demand tactics and restrictive legislative responses," she added.

Ms Bates was employed in 1986 as the first in-house manager of the Australian Prostitutes Collective NSW, now known as the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP). The organisation was instrumental in the push for decriminalisation.

Last year, Mr Bates was awarded with an Order of Australia in recognition of her work in harm reduction, peer support and the empowerment of sex workers.

And she's recently been supporting her colleagues and allies in SA, where a sex work decriminalisation bill – which includes street-based sex workers and anti-discrimination protection for all – has just passed through the lower house of parliament.

"The move for decriminalisation is thankfully evidence-based and more evidence in support of decriminalisation emerges every year," Ms Bates concluded. "These are major steps forward for all sex workers everywhere and for sex work to be treated as legitimate and valued work.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions