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From the CEO: Disasters see aid flood in

Every Issue

Cite as: March 2011 85(3) LIJ, p.6

The legal community rose to the challenge after another summer of natural disasters in two states.

Pro bono took on a whole new meaning for at least one law firm during the recent devastating Victorian floods.

Nine staff at Bendigo-based Beck Legal donned gumboots and headed 75km to Rochester to help with the clean-up operations there. They swept mud, moved debris and comforted people. Then they did it all over again in Charlton, 130km further west, a few days later.

Residents were very grateful and I’d like to express my own appreciation to Beck Legal – and all the other legal staff around the state who helped out – for taking the initiative with a shovel when it was needed most.

Now the need for more traditional pro bono assistance has caught up. The many legal issues arising from the floods in Queensland – one of Australia’s worst natural disasters – and Victoria have begun to emerge.

Disputes with insurers started within days of the disaster, as did those concerning sales of flood-affected properties. The LIV encouraged people to get legal advice before settling an insurance claim. Helping both Victorian and Queensland flood victims has been uppermost in our minds.

Our experience with the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires – the LIV took almost 3000 calls on its bushfire legal help hotline and provided more than 6000 services to people affected by the bushfires – gave us a template for future natural disasters. The experience was invaluable in teaching us about disaster relief from a legal perspective.

The LIV helped establish Bushfire Legal Help to provide free legal support to Victorians affected by the 2009 bushfires. It is a collaboration between Victoria Legal Aid, the Federation of Community Legal Centres, Victorian Bar, Victoria Law Foundation, Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) and the LIV.

With the Queensland floods, initial contact was made with the Queensland Law Society (QLS), offering support and advice.

A video conference between representatives of Legal Aid Queensland, Victoria Legal Aid, Queensland and Victorian PILCH, Queensland Department of Justice, QLS and other legal advice organisations explained how Bushfire Legal Help was set up from the very earliest days after Black Saturday, how it worked and which issues arose. The session was of great benefit to the Queensland groups as they set up their own legal help group.

When it became clear that Victoria was set for its own catastrophic floods, the LIV again swung into action, announcing that the state’s lawyers were there to help.

It encouraged flood victims to call the LIV for information on legal rights and entitlements. We put flood victims in touch with lawyers in their local area and lawyers with niche expertise such as insurance and real estate. We also provided flood victims with links to community organisations helping with, for example, lost documents. For many, we were, and continue to be, a starting point on this long, harrowing journey.

Free online legal information was made available to all Victorians affected by the floods. Updated legal fact sheets on storms and flood issues were posted on the Bushfire Legal Help website (www.bushfirelegalhelp.org.au). How to get insurance paid, how to access personal hardship grants and contact details for services that can help are among the fact sheets on the website.

The LIV reached out to members affected by the floods, too, offering information and practice assistance. And in its emergency bulletin, the Legal Practitioners Liability Committee gave advice to firms affected by loss of power supply or other disruptions. It advised on time-sensitive matters, obligations to clients and other areas of potential concern.

Friday Facts and the LIV website bore offers of practice assistance to members. On 31 January, the LIV embraced social media and launched its Twitter account (http://twitter.com/LIVPresident) and a president’s blog (www.liv.asn.au/livpresblog). These vehicles will, as many law firms are discovering, make dissemination of information fast and efficient. In times of natural disaster, this is a bonus.

The year began on a difficult note but the floods are behind us and now the focus is on working together as a profession and a community to rebuild and restore what stood before.

Beck Legal didn’t just leave it at working on the frontline during the floods. It began raising money to assist people whose homes it helped clear replace items like carpets and white goods, to help rebuild their homes and restore their dignity.

Members will be saddened to learn of the recent death of Téa Paris. Many of you would have known Téa during her time at the LIV, where she was a vibrant and dedicated member of the legal policy team. She worked in many capacities over her five years with us, including as paralegal to the Administrative Law and Human Rights Section. She was, until recently, working as a policy lawyer at the Law Council of Australia.

Our thoughts are with Téa's family and many friends.

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