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A helping hand with a heavy heart


News

Cite as: (2009) 83(04) LIJ, p.18


Australia’s worst ever natural disaster – Victoria’s February bushfires – brought out the best in human nature, and the legal profession was among the first groups to offer help to Victoria’s stricken communities.

The Black Saturday Bushfires will never be forgotten, and neither will the collective community effort to help survivors rebuild their lives.

By late afternoon on 7 February, now recorded as Melbourne’s hottest day ever, 10 major bushfires were raging across the state, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

Entire families perished, homes, possessions and towns were razed and a nation and world looked on in shock.

On 22 February, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced at a special ceremony that 7 February would mark an annual day of mourning, where Australian flags would be flown at half mast and a minute’s silence observed.

Two days after the special ceremony, Victorian Premier John Brumby told state Parliament that while the nation was united in grief, it was also united in its determination to rebuild.

He applauded the tens of thousands of volunteers who helped the people of the 78 townships directly affected by the fires. Among those to offer assistance was the legal profession which offered pro bono advice under the Bushfire Legal Help (BLH) banner.

At the time of writing, more than 580 private, Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) and community legal centre Lawyers and barristers had volunteered.

The statewide BLH initiative was created by the LIV, the VLA, the Federation of Community Legal Centres (FCLC), the Victoria Law Foundation (VLF), the Victorian Bar and the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH).

As the sheer scale of the disaster dawned with the day on 8 February, the LIV swung into action knowing, as it discovered after the 1983 Ash Wednesday blazes, that victims would need both immediate and ongoing legal assistance.

A media release was issued on Monday, 9 February to inform those who needed it that free legal advice was on offer and the LIV expanded its Legal Referral Service to deal specifically with bushfire related issues.

On Thursday, 12 February LIV president Danny Barlow, in an email letter, called on the profession to provide more legal assistance and the response was overwhelming.

Several hundred Lawyers volunteered to visit relief centres, see people with bushfire legal issues or take phone calls from the Bushfire Legal Helpline – 1800 113 432.

The legal profession community worked quickly to put together information kits which included VLA authorisation letters, statutory declarations, forms for identification recovery and insurance, as well as a “Frequently asked questions” section and relief information.

Practitioners offering assistance were advised that many of the bushfire victims would be shocked and distressed, possibly unlikely to be able to process the information provided, or provide the necessary information to practitioners.

The volunteers were given advice on what symptoms to look for and how to best help people who would most likely present with a range of legal and non-legal problems.

[See “A rapid response” on page 22 for more information on the legal profession’s immediate response to the disaster.]

Aware that volunteers could also be vulnerable to stress after dealing with people’s trauma and grief, the LIV put in place counselling assistance which could be accessed via the LIV’s Human Resources staff.

LIV Professional Standards general manager James Leach said that by 14 February, exactly one week after the fires, Lawyers had joined relief centres operating out of halls, schools and churches in devastated townships.

These first response practitioners were largely of generalist expertise with experience in dealing sensitively with distressed clients.

“It was readily apparent that practitioners needed a wide skill set to operate in those circumstances,” Mr Leach said. As anticipated, initial inquiries extended from re-establishing identity, finding accommodation and other housing and tenancy issues and dealing with creditors and utility companies to accessing benefits and obtaining insurance information.

The need also arose for help with reconstructing and tracking down wills, paying child support and mortgages and other debts, accessing superannuation, personal injury inquiries, contacting the Coroner’s Office and meeting court orders.

Practitioners were also asked to explain how to access emergency government grants and benefits and special government measures, such as waiving of land tax and stamp duty for fire victims.

A major concern for BLH was continuity of care and maintaining contact sheets designed to accompany clients during the process so they did not have to repeat their stories.

Experts in particular subject areas were called on to provide secondary consultation support to the clinics and helpline Lawyers.

Throughout this period, practitioners, like many other Victorians, were anonymously helping bushfire victims in a variety of ways, as well as dealing with their own grief as news of colleagues affected by the fires became known.

Corrs’ summer clerk Melanee Hermocilla was killed and at least five practitioners lost their homes.

Some of those who lost their homes then joined those dispensing advice to other victims.

At the time of writing, the tally of destruction included 210 deaths, 2029 homes and farm houses destroyed, countless businesses and 350,000 hectares of land burned out, and more than 1500 farming structures destroyed.

But there was also evidence of vast support for the affected communities.

In the month since the bushfires, community contributions raised more than $230,000,000.

Fire agencies estimated that more than 4000 fire agency personnel worked directly on the fires and medical and victim identification teams and other police and military were deployed.

Thousands of Red Cross, St Vincent de Paul, Salvation Army, Anglicare, VicRelief Foodbank and St John’s Ambulance volunteers attended the devastated townships. And thousands of other ordinary Victorians registered with the Victorian government as volunteers.

Lawyers handled more than 200 inquiries at 18 relief centres and received more than 240 calls to the legal helpline – 70 per cent of the total related to insurance.

They included the review of insurance payouts before deadlines, under-insurance issues, disaster claims and dealing with the Insurance Ombudsman and insurance companies.

This obvious need prompted the BLH to hold insurance, credit and finance information sessions in Whittlesea and Kinglake in early March.

LIV public affairs manager and BLH spokesperson Kerry O’Shea found it heartening that the entire legal profession came together to assist in the best way that it could – by providing free legal advice.

“There was an immediate and spontaneous outpouring of offers of free assistance from all levels of the profession which was incredibly gratifying to see – and a month later the offers of help are still coming,”

Ms O’Shea said.“This was such a large-scale tragedy we expect the need for legal assistance will grow over the coming weeks and months as people return to their communities and rebuild their lives.

“But, having seen the way the profession has worked as one and with such selflessness to help the community, I am confident legal support will continue,” she said.

As the relief centres became recovery centres, legal inquiries became more specialised, and will continue to do so in the months ahead.

It is predicted the main specialties will be insurance, property and housing Law, with issues including re-surveying, rental complaints and rebuilding homes under changed planning schemes.

Other needs may include wills and estates, tort Law, tax, employment, contract, administrative and family Law experts.

Mr Hulls told the LIJ that the enthusiasm and willingness of Lawyers to volunteer their time and expertise was “an impressive example of the legal fraternity at its best”.

“I have visited and spoken to Lawyers volunteering at relief centres over the past few weeks and have been impressed by their compassion and empathy while providing assistance to often traumatised bushfire victims. I would like to thank all those involved for their efforts,” he said.

LIV Councillor Mark Woods predicted battles with insurance companies over denied claims and claims involving property that had not been destroyed but damaged.

He said there could also be issues with employers over leave entitlements for those rebuilding homes and neighbours over fence lines, with authorities over criminal injury compensation and government over ongoing assistance and whether Crown land had been properly cleared before the fires.

He also said that each victim was a potential royal commission and coronial inquiry witness and there was no provision for legal assistance in Victoria.

“These can be serious legal issues and there must be a question over the ability of people to fund legal fights,” he said.

“We have had no indication as to how the government will properly fund the VLA system for the victims. Rebuilding doesn’t just mean dollars for bricks and mortar.”

Mr Brumby has created a $40 million royal commission, appointing twice former LIV president and former Supreme Court Justice Bernard Teague AO chair, with “the broadest possible terms of reference and capacity to inquire into all aspects of the fires”.

“We learned lessons from the Black Friday bushfires of 1939, we learned lessons after Ash Wednesday in 1983 and we want to learn lessons from these horrific bushfires too,” he said.

The royal commission has been asked to make recommendations on fire preparation, planning schemes, response measures, communication systems and strategies, and training and resourcing.

The LIJ realises there will be many Lawyers who helped who it has been unable to acknowledge. If you have further information about the legal profession’s participation or help offered, please contact the LIJ on ph 9607 9319 or at mpaskos@liv.asn.au.

If people wish to donate to the Bushfire Appeal visit the Premier’s website http://www.premier.vic.gov.au.

Jason Gregory

Handle with care

On 12 and 13 February hundreds of practitioners who had volunteered for the Bushfire Legal Help (BLH) initiative attended special briefings at the Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) Queen Street headquarters.

Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls, who attended one of the sessions, thanked the volunteers for their service.

The volunteers were told by LIV CEO Mike Brett Young, LIV Professional Standards general manager James Leach, VLA managing director Bevan Warner and government representatives what to expect in the field.

They were warned, whether they would staff the phones in a Melbourne office or travel to one of the 18 relief centres around the state, to ready themselves for severely distressed people telling heartbreaking stories.

These people were likely to be severely traumatised, having just days previously thought they might die or having seen others killed or injured and lost family, friends, homes, businesses, pets, livestock or their entire community.

Practitioners were warned that some clients would be so shocked their bodies would display symptoms normally expected after a major coronary episode and examples of bodily tension, tiredness from sleepless nights, headaches, trembling, sweating, nausea, aches and pains.

The practitioners were told that their advice would often be dispensed to people who

had trouble thinking clearly, concentrating, making decisions, remembering or even speaking.

Practitioners were also told that taking on such an emotional load could come at a personal cost and were given various physical and mental warning signs to be aware of and how they could best deal with it. It was suggested they “buddy” with a colleague.

If LIV members who volunteered believe they now need help they can contact either the LIV Human Resources staff on humanresources@liv.asn.au who can refer them to appropriate contacts or see the LawCare entry on the LIV website –

www.liv.asn.au/members/services/about/services-Personal.html.

LawCare is the LIV’s confidential counselling service which aims to help members deal with personal and professional problems that interfere with their work performance and personal life.

At a Glance

  • 210 lives lost
  • More than 2000 homes and farm houses destroyed
  • 350,000 hectares of land burned out
  • More than 1500 farming structures destroyed
  • More than 580 private, Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) and community legal centre Lawyers and barristers volunteered their services
  • 7 February to be a national day of mourning
  • Former LIV president and retired Supreme Court Justice Bernard Teague AO appointed to chair a royal commission into Victoria’s bushfires
  • Federal and Victorian governments announced funding for a site clean-up and demolition program
  • A raft of support packages also announced by both governments, including offering temporary housing while communities are cleaned up and rebuilding begins
  • Major fundraising included a telethon on 13 February and major benefit concerts staged on 14 March simultaneously at the Melbourne and Sydney Cricket Grounds

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