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A rapid response


Cite as: (2009) 83(04) LIJ, p.22

The LIV played a key role in helping the legal profession reach out quickly to survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires.

The LIV rapid response effort was led by CEO Mike Brett Young, with strong support from key staff including LIV public affairs manager Kerry O’Shea, LIV Professional Standards manager James Leach, Member and LIV Information Services manager Susan Woodman, former Legal Referral Service manager Margaret Lee, the referral service staff and the Legal Policy and Practice group.

The LIV response began on the morning of 8 February when, like millions of other Australians, Mr Brett Young awoke to headlines that 14 people were known to have been killed in the Black Saturday Bushfires.

Understanding that members and victims would, among their other myriad concerns, need emergency legal advice, he telephoned Ms O’Shea and the message that free assistance would be offered immediately was disseminated through the media on Monday, 9 February.

Also on 9 February, the state government asked Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) managing director Bevan Warner to form a body to organise volunteer Lawyers and direct their services.

Mr Warner asked the LIV and other bodies to coordinate their voluntary efforts and the first meeting of what would later be known as Bushfire Legal Help (BLH) was held on 10 February.

On Thursday, 12 February, LIV president Danny Barlow sent an open email letter to the profession calling on practitioners to offer their services pro bono.

The response was overwhelming and quickly about 580 private, VLA, community legal centre Lawyers and barristers had volunteered to help.

More than 200 practitioners were briefed at the VLA and ready to help at the relief centres by Saturday, 14 February – one week after the fires.

LIV Information Services and Legal Referral staff coordinated the private Lawyer volunteers into rosters. So heavy was the workload that, at the LIV’s request, the Legal Services Commissioner sent over two administration staff to help sift through the volunteer applications.

The first pro bono program to begin was in Gippsland to help people who suffered due to damage caused by fires in the lead-up to Black Saturday.

LIV Councillor Mark Woods was heavily involved in that initiative.

The experience and assistance of LIV Professional Standards general manager James Leach, who helped organise pro bono legal assistance for the victims of the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires, was also instrumental in the successful formation of the BLH.

Among Mr Leach’s tasks was to visit the relief centres and advise on how Lawyers could best help, advise on what sort of legal information Lawyers would need and help in briefing the Lawyers.

The LIV Professional Standards department helped solve possible ethical problems facing volunteer Lawyers as regards legal professional privilege.

Mr Leach also gave a detailed update at a meeting of LIV staff.

At the time of writing, Lawyers had handled more than 200 inquiries at 18 separate recovery centres and received more than 240 calls on a special legal helpline.

Ms O’Shea, who as media adviser for then Police and Emergency Services Minister Race Mathews had witnessed the effect of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, also brought previous experience to the group.

She helped establish the BLH and was appointed its spokesperson.

This mainly involved providing information to the other legal groups and to the community through the media, including several radio and newspaper interviews.

“The scale of these bushfires is nothing like we have seen before, but they have also resulted in an unprecedented response from the legal fraternity and there has been great cooperation,” Ms O’Shea said.

Ms Lee and LIV Legal Referral staff received hundreds of telephone calls from victims, their families and practitioners and had the important task of referring clients to the practitioners who had experience in the areas of Law relevant to their problems.

They also helped draw up rosters of volunteers which included private practitioners, community legal centre and VLA Lawyers, as well as Lawyers from the country and suburban Law associations. They contacted all volunteer Lawyers to advise them of the progress of the operation.

LIV Member and Information Services general manager Susan Woodman, referral service staff and referral manager Margaret Lee and the Legal Policy and Practice group have been praised for their work.

Mr Brett Young congratulated all those involved on the unified approach and the speed at which help was delivered.

“There is immense goodwill in the profession that will always be provided in such circumstances,” he said.

In addition, he has called for a permanent disaster response plan which would continually be reviewed and updated and involve all government, legal and voluntary groups.

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

Jason Gregory

Former LIV Councillor appointed acting magistrate

Two magistrates have been reassigned to assist the State Coroner’s Office in coronial investigations following the Victorian bushfires.

To backfill one of the reassigned magistrates’ positions, Stella Stuthridge & Associates principal Stella Stuthridge of Bendigo has been appointed an acting magistrate.

Ms Stuthridge, who resigned as an LIV Councillor last month to take up the new role, is the third Lawyer to be appointed an acting magistrate.

Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls said another acting magistrate would be appointed soon, and a further Coroner’s position would be reactivated.

He said the extra appointments would help the Coroner focus on the bushfire investigations.

“The Coroner’s Office has been working around the clock in difficult circumstances to formally identify those who died during the recent bushfires,” Mr Hulls said.

Commenting on Ms Stuthridge’s appointment, Mr Hulls said she brought broad legal experience and expertise to the Magistrates’ Court and her appointment would assist the Court in managing its workload.

LIV president Danny Barlow said Ms Stuthridge’s move to the Court was a “wonderful appointment”.

“We at the LIV are delighted for her and for the community as she brings a wealth of experience and skills. However, we are concerned that we lose such a valuable member from the LIV Council,” he said.

At the time of her appointment, Ms Stuthridge was a member of the LIV Professional Development Committee for criminal Lawyers and LIV Criminal Law Section chair.


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