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Pro bono: Answering the emergency call


Every Issue

Cite as: (2009) 83(04) LIJ, p.81

Pro bono has had a significant role to play in the legal response to Victoria’s February bushfires.

Soon after the horror and scale of Victoria’s February bushfires became evident, the LIV, Victoria Legal Aid, PILCH, the Federation of Community Legal Centres and the Victorian Bar began working together to provide a collaborative legal response under the banner “Bushfire Legal Help”. [See “A helping hand with a heavy heart” and “A rapid response” on pages 18-23 of this edition of the LIJ for more on the bushfires and Bushfire Legal Help.]

PILCH has coordinated a significant component of that response and support from PILCH member firms and practitioners more generally has been incredible.

The experience of the Canberra bushfires in 2003 demonstrated that the types of law likely to be relevant were those areas in which community legal centres (CLCs) and the Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinics (HPLCs) commonly provide advice.

In addition to the significant work that CLCs undertook for victims of the bushfires, PILCH member firms that staff the HPLCs provided rosters of lawyers to back-up the onsite legal clinics at various bushfire relief and recovery centres.

CLC and HPLC lawyers were identified as well qualified to provide this onsite assistance because of their training in dealing with people who are going through crisis.

PILCH has also coordinated the preparation of a number of fact sheets providing information on various legal issues faced by victims of the bushfires. For instance, a law firm prepared a comprehensive fact sheet on royal commissions, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and its terms of reference and how the Commission might interact with the coronial process.

Another firm provided fact sheets in the form of an identification kit which contained information about how to replace destroyed identification documents.

All of this assistance has been provided by private firms on a pro bono basis and generally at very short notice. The fact sheets are currently available on the PILCH website (www.pilch.org.au) and the Victoria Legal Aid website (www.legalaid.vic.gov.au) and have been provided to clients and to volunteer lawyers attending the relief centres and manning the Bushfire Legal Helpline.

The Victoria Law Foundation has assisted in the development of a dedicated Bushfire Legal Help website.

PILCH has received a wide range of inquiries via the Bushfire Legal Helpline, which it has referred to a large number of law firms and barristers.

As one would expect, the vast majority of the inquiries have related to insurance.

In particular, people have sought contractual advice about the terms of insurance policies, the benefits of the rebuild option versus the lump sum option available in many insurance policies, and advice on what to do if they are underinsured or not insured at all.

Sadly, there have also been a number of inquiries regarding wills and estates and in particular, wills destroyed in the fires and the release of funds from an estate pending the granting of probate. Finally, we have received inquiries about fencing issues, where people need to replace fences that abut private property and Crown land.

The pro bono legal network has responded to the need for legal assistance for victims of the Victorian bushfires with commendable speed, efficiency and goodwill.

The response is a credit to the profession as a whole. The coordinating bodies for Bushfire Legal Help have learned a great deal about responding to a disaster and working together to provide legal services in an emergency setting.

Efforts are being made to capture that knowledge and reflect on the learnings so that the profession will be in a position to respond to future disasters with similar speed and efficiency.


CAROLINE ADLER is PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic manager and principal lawyer. PILCH coordinates the Pro Bono column and further information is available from http://www.pilch.org.au.

Looking to help?

To facilitate lawyers and firms becoming involved in pro bono work other than legal services, the LIJ will profile a community group and its needs each month.

People & Parks Foundation
Contact person: Jenny Holliday, CEO
Email: Jholliday@peopleandparks.org
Address: Level 10, 535 Bourke Street 3000

People and Parks Foundation believes that healthy environments, communities and lifestyles are inextricably linked. The Foundation aims to improve people’s physical and mental health while ensuring the sustainability of parks. Its innovative programs combine the health benefits of physical activity and interaction with nature. In addition to human health and wellbeing benefits, its programs increase people-park interaction, which elevates the relevance of parks in people’s lives. This in turn ensures a greater understanding and appreciation of the value of these special places and helps gain support for initiatives to protect them into the future.

Current needs of group

Event management for premier events, business analysis, IT advice, research and administration. Apply at http://www.goodcompany.com.au.

Goodcompany

See goodcompany at http://www.goodcompany.com.au for more information on this and other skilled volunteering opportunities.

For more information about volunteering in general, see also:

  • www.probonoaustralia.com.au
  • www.ourcommunity.com.au

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