Three groundbreaking cases highlight Monique Pongracic-Speier's commitment to pro-bono work

Pongracic-Speier recently received an award for her work from the CBA's BC Branch

Three groundbreaking cases highlight Monique Pongracic-Speier's commitment to pro-bono work
Monique Pongracic-Speier, Ethos Law Group LLP

Monique Pongracic-Speier says she has been blessed to enjoy a consistent stream of compelling and meaningful cases throughout her 22 years practising law.

Her first case, which she began working on as an articling student, was Arishenkoff v. British Columbia. The plaintiffs had been members of the Sons of Freedom sect of the Doukhobor religion, a group of exiled Russian Christians who settled in BC in the early 20th century. As children in the 1950s, the province apprehended them under child protection legislation because their parents refused to send them to school.

The plaintiffs were held in a residential school in New Denver, BC, which had formerly housed interned Japanese Canadians during World War 2. In the early 2000s, they sued the Crown for damages arising from their ill-treatment, among other claims, including breach of fiduciary duty and trust. The plaintiffs were unsuccessful at the BC Supreme Court and Court of Appeal because claims could not be brought against the government for the actions of its employees or agents carried out before BC’s Crown Proceedings Act went into effect in 1974.

But this February, the BC government offered the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors a $10-million compensation package, and Attorney General Niki Sharma apologized to members and their relatives for the physical and psychological abuse the children had suffered. 

For Pongracic-Speier, it was “one of those long-arc-of-history moments,” and she was gratified to see the news.

The Court of Appeal ruled on Arishenkoff in 2005. The following year, she was counsel on Cowburn v. British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Board), 2006 BCSC 722, challenging a Workers’ Compensation Board policy that limited the benefits owed to retired workers with deteriorating health conditions. Her client had developed a chronic lung problem from asbestos exposure. It forced him to retire, and as the illness worsened, the board refused to pay the required benefits.

“The policy was overturned. It not only provided benefits to my client but resulted in the payment of tens of millions of dollars of benefits to injured workers.”

Over the next few years, Pongracic-Speier was counsel on PHS Community Services Society v. Canada (Attorney General), which reached the Supreme Court of Canada in 2011. The litigation prevented the federal government from closing Vancouver’s Insite, North America's first safe injection clinic.

Insite required an exemption from the possession and trafficking prohibitions under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) and opened shortly after receiving one in 2003. Tony Clement, then the Conservative Minister of Health, denied a new exemption in 2008. The SCC upheld the trial judge’s ruling that applying the CDSA prohibitions violated Insite users’ rights under s. 7 of the Charter because it denied them potentially life-saving healthcare. The court ordered the Minister to grant the exemption.

It was “possibly the single most important case I've ever been involved in,” says Pongracic-Speier.

The Canadian Bar Association BC Branch recently named Pongracic-Speier, the recipient of the 2024 Harry Rankin, QC Pro Bono Award. She says she is honoured to have received the award and that recognizing pro-bono services is particularly important at a time of limited access to legal aid.

In her acceptance speech, Pongracic-Speier said she suspected the pro-bono litigation most directly responsible for her receiving the award was a seven-year constitutional challenge to BC’s family law legal aid system for failing to provide adequate funding for women escaping abusive relationships. In 2017, the Single Mothers’ Alliance, now called the Centre for Family Equity, challenged the scheme under s. 15, the Charter’s guarantee of equality under the law, and the access to justice requirement in s. 96 of the Constitution Act.

The province settled the case in February, announcing an investment of $29.1 million over three years and a new, multidisciplinary, trauma-informed family law clinic. The province also raised the income threshold for legal aid eligibility.

“I feel very proud of the work we did on that case,” says Pongracic-Speier. “In my view, it's very significant because it has made what I think will be a meaningful contribution to access to justice in this province for some of the people who most need it.”

Pongracic-Speier practises at Ethos Law Group LLP in Vancouver. Her general litigation practice involves handling a variety of public and private law matters.

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