Legal assistance is an essential element in emergency plans and recovery strategies with regard to natural disasters such as the Black Saturday bushfires, according to the Bushfire Legal Help report released this week.
Bushfire Legal Help is a partnership of six Victorian legal agencies - including the Federation of Community Legal Centres, the Public Interest Law Clearing House, the Victorian Bar, the Law Institute of Victoria, the Victorian Law Foundation and Victoria Legal Aid - which was established within days of Victoria's Black Saturday disaster.
It responded to more than 2165 enquiries and provided ongoing legal support and resources to more than 800 of those affected by the bushfires.
The 40-page report found that despite myriad legal issues that can arise from a state of emergency - such as identification, wills, estates, housing and tenancy, insurance, property law and family issues - legal services are conspicuously absent from emergency management policies and plans, at both state and national levels.
The report also calls for better protection of legal and human rights during inquiries such as the Bushfire Royal Commission, and describes in detail the contributions of each of the agencies involved in Bushfire Legal Help, including personal stories of the harrowing experiences faced by victims.
Lawyers at the Kinglake relief centre, for example, assisted a young couple whose home had been destroyed by fire.
"The lawyers helped us with all our paperwork - right from getting a birth certificate for our little baby, who was only four days old, to sorting out issues with our landlord," recounted the couple.
"The lawyers worked around our needs and even called us out of hours. We are so grateful."
All in all, the report made three broad recommendations: that legal assistance be recognised as a vital component of natural disaster emergency services; that emergency health, housing, counselling and legal services be co-located in times of a natural disaster recovery; and that the legal sector inform governments and planning bodies of the longer-term legal problems created by major emergencies.
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