It’s been over a week in crisis mode for residents of Townsville and the surrounding far-north Queensland region following unprecedented rain in the area.
At the time of this article going live, there have been two confirmed deaths in the area, while hundreds of homes are bearing substantial losses.
Lawyers Weekly spoke with two prominent lawyers from Townsville to gain some first-hand insight into the situation and how it is impacting the region’s legal profession, as well as the community at large.
Mark Fenlon, president of the Townsville District Law Association and senior police prosecutor for the Queensland police service.
What is the current situation in Townsville?
MF: Well, we are currently in the midst of disaster relief. We’ve had numerous suburbs which have been affected in Townsville by large volumes of water which came from a massive rain event which caused the Ross River to flood. So we have a number of people whose homes, businesses, and other things that people deal with that have been affected by flooding.
Do you have any idea of how the legal profession has been affected? How’s it affected you in your role?
MF: We’ve had the courts shut for the last week. The issue’s effectively been one of safety; we don’t want people travelling through flood waters to try and get to court. So from the perspective of staff, defendants, and everything else, we’ve simply shut everything down. All matters have been adjourned off, and we will worry about how we are going to deal with that in the coming weeks.
That’s affected all the courts, at every level. The Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court are closed until at least tomorrow (Friday, 8 February). Supreme, District, and Magistrates Courts have been closed all this week.
But in terms of discussing things with defence lawyers, we don’t know who is open and who is not, so all we can do is send emails and hope people respond.
Have you been working the whole way through?
MF: Yes, I was back at work on Monday. We have been operating on a skeleton staff, we certainly don’t have everybody back on deck yet either. We have had a number of our own staff that have lost homes, cars, and other things to flooding, so they’ve obviously been dealing with the clean-up job.
From all accounts, communication has been vital. How have you, in your own work, and then the district law association been communicating?
MF: We’ve got a good line of communication with the coordinating magistrate, the registrar of the supreme and district courts, as well as the federal circuit court and family courts.
Everything that we’ve received, and as it’s evolved, has gone out via our secretary by email to our members, our Facebook page has been getting updated with everything ... In a time like this, social media is probably the more appropriate way to get things out. Because while not everyone may have access to email, most of our members are on Facebook, so we’ve been communicating via Facebook with every court event as the position has evolved, so that the members know what they are required and not required to do with respect to their commitments.
Can you give us any insight into the ways lawyers and support staff have been working through this period?
MF: I’m aware of at least one law firm that has effectively had to stop for the moment until they work out what they are going to do because the firm has sustained damage. It got flooded – just from the rain event, not actually from the river rising. But things like carpet being completely ruined, so you can't have clients or staff in there because it's a safety issue and a health issue, so they have not been able to operate.
I’m assuming that there’s probably going to be others that are in a similar position but we simply haven't been told about them yet. I know of many lawyers, particularly that were residing in Idalia, which was one of the major suburbs that’s gone under, it’s a new suburb, and a lot of solicitors lived around that area, and their houses have gone under water.
Have you received any offers for assistance?
MF: We’ve already had some amazing officer support…
We’ve had the Queensland Law Society obviously do a press release with respect to the issues that are going on in Townsville. Bill Potts has been very supportive, as has the previous president Ken Taylor, with respect to offers of assistance to our members.
In addition to that, we’ve had an offer of support from Arthur Moses SC at the Law Council of Australia, and PEXA has also made offers to assist our members, and we are working out how that’s going to be sorted at the moment.
We have been very lucky and fortunate in that the legal community outside of Townsville seems to be rallying around us to offer assistance where it can.
As I said, in that particular aspect, we are very, very fortunate.
We are working through issues at the moment, because the flood still could potentially affect people, because the rain isn’t going to stop until Saturday.
The major issue for most of Townsville is we’ve been so dry in the preceding months leading in to this, and when we have something that’s unprecedented, where we have such insane volumes of rain – no one really had an idea of how this was going to affect them.
So, we'’ve had significant warnings issued by council, and the police and emergency services about people that were potentially in danger and had to move or be evacuated, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be quite as bad as what it actually was.
Bill Mitchell, principal solicitor at Townsville Community Legal Service
How is the situation up there? What is going on?
BM: The situation is, I think, rather shocking. We’ve had clearly the worst floods in Townsville’s history, maybe the worst floods in North Queensland’s history, and among the worst floods in Australia’s history.
We’ve been very lucky, with a couple of exceptions, that there’s been minimal loss of life. There’s been very widespread property damage and property loss, and these are typically along the inner city where it meets the river, and other river suburbs.
Other suburbs that are connected to the river with drainage and other water courses, and lots of businesses have been affected, so it’s not just residents that have been affected, lots of businesses have been affected.
We have no power in some suburbs still, so there’s been up to a week of loss of utilities for some people. Some people are still flooded in – they can't get out of their houses, so I think it’s a pretty shocking situation at the moment.
How is the Community Legal Centre coping at the moment?
BM: We just re-opened yesterday, and we had to shut down in a kind of emergency situation last week. We are currently speaking with a bit of a back-log of clients who we couldn’t service last week, and that’s our normal work, so people with general enquiries, and family law enquiries, so we are catching up with our clients at the moment. We are just also starting to see the first legal enquiries coming through about matters that relate to the flooding itself.
We’ve got a skeleton crew, we’ve got close to half-staff, but we’re here because it’s important to provide services to the local community as a part of the response to the natural disaster.
How hard has it been to communicate with your clients and keep everyone in the loop of what’s going on?
BM: Our district law association does a fantastic job of keeping lawyers and the legal system up to date with who is closed and what’s happening. Small communities tend to have very good communications in that way, so the networks are working very well between lawyers, and between courts and lawyers, and between the arms of government and lawyers, so that’s good.
Clients, on the other hand, are more difficult. I see lots of activity on Facebook, people are using social media to communicate with each other. They are working very hard to let other people know what services are open... But of course, there’s also a level of frustration because people who had expectations to see someone or have something done might have missed that chance because services have generally been closed.
Look, it’s just what you would expect to see in the wake of a – well, it’s still raining here, so I won’t say in the wake of, because it's still happening, but hopefully it's getting better.
But yes, there’s a level of anger and frustration and grief, because a lot of people out there suffered substantial trauma and property losses.
How is your building?
BM: Our building is okay in the city. But certainly, there are areas near the city that were badly affected. There are still some principle routes in and out of Townsville that are badly affected. The city seems to be starting to come back, the courts are still closed.
Certainly, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court have been closed. The Magistrates, district and supreme courts have been closed, but the court has been kept open as is necessary to deal with police matters and bail matters.
We should expect to see some of those essential services re-opening next week, but community organisations are often back as early as possible because they see the importance of being part of the emergency response.
When the courts come back, will there be some leeway for those that have been affected and unable to carry out the things that they have needed to do?
BM: That's been my experience as a lawyer in practice for 25 years. Courts have a very, very clear human side where there are proper excuses for things not being done, and they are usually prepared to accept that. There’re some real logistical issues: people couldn’t travel, people couldn’t even leave their homes for the most part... There’s been widespread blackouts so I don’t think there’ll be any troubles there.
Of course, there’ll be a limit as to how long that excuse will work for, and lawyers and their clients will be expected to get back to their business of doing law pretty quickly, but yes, I think it will be perfectly acceptable for many matters, and it will no doubt will be an issue for a lot of clients.
I would say many are not in contact with their lawyers at the moment anyway, because they are looking after the day-to-day worries of staying safe...
How important is the legal profession right now?
BM: I think it’s important to recognise that community legal centres and the private legal profession, through pro bono support, have always been very good at responding to the needs of local communities after disasters, and I don’t think this will be any different.
The local legal community in Townsville, including the non-profit, and the for-profit sector, will work very hard to make sure people are assisted with any issues that arise, and I think it’s really important to acknowledge that... Not just the free legal providers, but also the private profession in its pro bono capacity, and its paid capacity.