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American Bar Association

Disaster Legal Assistance

Disasters, both natural and manmade, can result in large populations in immediate need of legal assistance on a number of topics. Although it is difficult to know when disaster may strike, legal services providers can have a plan in place to mobilize community attorneys to provide pro bono assistance when necessary. Including volunteer attorneys in the plan will allow the program to provide assistance to more people, more quickly and efficiently.

Basic Resources

The Federal Emergency Management Agency ("FEMA") is an independent agency of the federal government founded in 1979. FEMA's mission is to reduce loss of life and property and protect our nation's critical infrastructure from all types of hazards through a comprehensive, risk-based, emergency management program of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

The American Bar Association House of Delegates at the 2007 Midyear Meeting in February overwhelmingly approved A Model Court Rule on Provision of Legal Services Following Determination of Major Disaster. The model rule would allow out-of-state lawyers to provide pro bono legal services in an affected jurisdiction and lawyers in the affected jurisdiction whose legal practices had been disrupted by a major disaster to practice law on a temporary basis in an unaffected jurisdiction. For further information, , Client Protection Counsel, ABA Standing Committee on Client Protection, or Director, ABA Center for Pro Bono. To see the status of State Implementation of this rule you may view this resource: Chart - State Implementation of ABA Model Court Rule on Provision of Legal Services Following Determination of Major Disaster

The ABA Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division recently published an article "Federal Disaster Relief Reshaped for a New World," 12 THE PUBLIC LAWYER 1 (Winter 2004), describing the variety of available federal disaster assistance. For information on how to obtain a copy of this article, please see http://www.abanet.org/policy/reprints.html.

The ABA Division for Bar Services maintains a website compiling disaster relief resources from state and local bar associations and law-related public service entities. Resources are grouped into practice management resources, public service resources, legal services resources, bar association responses, and other association responses.

The Young Lawyers Division ("YLD") of the American Bar Association, as well as the YLD of most state bar associations, works closely with FEMA immediately following a disaster to provide legal assistance to those in need of help (see the ABA/FEMA Memorandum of Understanding and News Release). For example, the YLD of the Washington State Bar Association has a web page devoted to information about its disaster legal assistance program. Legal services providers should contact the local or state YLD to coordinate the delivery of assistance in the event of a disaster.

The NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education, the City Bar Fund, and the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics, Fordham University School of Law published a report entitled "Public Service in a Time of Crisis" that documents pro bono efforts and assesses lessons learned in the course of the legal community's response to the events of 9/11.

The ABA's Center for Professional Responsibility maintains the State Court Rules On Provision of Pro Bono Legal Services by Out-of-State Lawyers Following Major Disaster.

The ABA Center for Pro Bono's website has a downloadable Disaster Legal Services manual prepared by the State Bar of California's California Program Development Unit of the Office of Legal Services.

Organizing a Disaster Legal Assistance Effort

Organizing a disaster legal assistance effort entails preparing a plan to set into motion in the event of a disaster. A lead organization or person should be designated to coordinate the effort. The organizations involved should develop contingency plans for communication and other logistics. Organizations should also develop and keep current a panel of volunteers, as well as a manual covering common legal situations and available resources. In preparation for delivering legal services post-disaster, the Most Common Disaster Legal Needs Timeline is a helpful guide.

Utilizing the Internet to manage and coordinate the effort can streamline procedures. For example, the Virginia Bar Association includes on its website a volunteer form for pro bono attorneys for assistance with the September 2003 Hurricane Isabel effort. An additional example is the West Tennessee Legal Services ("WTLS") web page with information about Disaster Recovery Services: The Community Partnership for Long-Term Tornado Recovery following the devastation in WTLS' service area in 2003. The New Jersey Bar Association has web pages to help organize the Regional Task Force on Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Planning, supporting the efforts of bar associations in several states.

The Disaster Response Lawyers Coalition, a coalition of 15 different organizations, established a website to facilitate the provision of disaster legal assistance to victims of the San Diego area wildfires. The website directs those in need of assistance to the appropriate resources; provides information on various topics, such as hiring a contractor or tax relief for fire victims; and articles on related topics. The website also provides information on volunteering to provide legal assistance, an online application to volunteer, and online training materials.

Posting materials on the Internet for volunteers providing legal assistance provides easily accessed information on common issues. Another example of such materials can be found on the Morrison & Foerster LLP website, where 'Helping Handbooks' for many disasters are posted.

Georgia Legal Services, the State Bar of Georgia's Pro Bono Project and the Georgia Bar's Young Lawyers Division work together to provide legal assistance to victims of disaster in Georgia. The partnership developed a website to provide legal information to victims of disasters. There is also a website with various disaster-related materials for advocates (registration required).

For More Information

The ABA Center for Pro Bono's Clearinghouse library contains additional materials concerning disaster assistance projects, including manuals for the provision of disaster legal assistance. For more information, please email Cheryl Zalenski at cheryl.zalenski@americanbar.org.

the National Disaster Legal Aid website gathers resources from the American Bar Association. Legal Services Corporation, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Lone Star Legal Aid and Pro Bono Net.

Management Information Exchange (M.I.E) has set up a library section devoted to Disaster Planning (Subscription to their Journal is required for access to the library.)

Updated: 10/15/2015

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