Reinventing the Rules

Discover the Latest Innovations and Lessons Learned in Rule of Law and Legal Empowerment Projects

Improving Access to Justice in Post-Disaster Contexts

From 1991-2000, an average of 255 natural disasters occurred worldwide every year. From 2000-2003, this number rose to an average of 707 natural disasters each year. The biggest increase was in developing countries, with Asia being the most disaster prone area, followed by Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean. So what does this have to do with access to justice? An article published earlier this year by Davida Finger titled “50 Years After the ‘War on Poverty’: Evaluating the Justice Gap in the Post-Disaster Context” offers fascinating insight on the US’ own struggle with providing civil legal aid to impoverished communities after natural disasters. The publication contains valuable recommendations for practitioners looking to bridge humanitarian assistance with legal aid and discusses why post-disaster legal concerns of communities shouldn’t go ignored.  Excerpts are below!

Credit: Kate Lamb/VOA

Credit: Kate Lamb/VOA

The Start of Federal Support for Civil Legal Services

In 1964, President Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” Johnson’s often repeated quote sums up the massive undertaking of the 1964 War on Poverty: “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, prevent it.” As a part of achieving this goal, the federal government began providing financial support for domestic civil legal services for the indigent in By 1970, the basic structure of what became the new legal services program was established.

President Nixon eventually signed the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Act into law. The Act established and funded a separate non-profit corporation to provide “equal access to the system of justice” for individuals who face economic barriers that prevent them from obtaining legal counsel in civil matters.

How Social Vulnerability is Exacerbated after Natural Disasters

Following domestic disasters, we have learned that the burdens on poor people and the resulting justice gap become even more pronounced. In disaster literature, “social vulnerability” refers to “various attributes and conditions such as poverty, race and ethnicity, gender, age, health and physical ability, and housing conditions” that “place human populations at risk of adverse consequences from a disaster.” Indeed, “[f]laws in domestic policy are exacerbated by social, economic, and political inequalities. In this way, the social experience of disaster is a function of already existing injustices.”

As we consider how the post-disaster provision of legal services can be improved for our country’s economically vulnerable population, an understanding of social vulnerability should be a prominent concern.

Legal Services After Hurricane Katrina (in the US) Quote for BP

Before Hurricane Katrina, census data of the Greater New Orleans area showed that it was one of the nation’s most impoverished cities, located in one of the country’s most impoverished states. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita created overwhelming burdens on civil legal services agencies and the lawyers who were providing civil legal services to the indigent. Legal services programs throughout Louisiana were unable to handle between sixty-six and eighty percent of calls for assistance. The number of people who actually needed assistance is likely far greater than documented because many people with serious legal needs did not or could not call legal services intake lines or visit legal services offices or outreach clinics. Due to previously existing legal problems, it is likely that even more of the legal needs of indigent people went unmet following the hurricanes. The post-disaster context adds multiple layers of long-term, complex legal problems.

Common Legal Issues After Hurricane Katrina 

Legal matters directly relating to the hurricanes, such as those connected to housing and homelessness, insurance claims, federal and state disaster program benefits, and contractor fraud with rebuilding, were among the most common types of issues. Other legal problems connected to the hurricanes such as family law, domestic violence, and drafting documents, including for successions and wills, were also quite pressing for an extended period of time. Indeed, now many years following the hurricanes, there continues to be widespread need for legal services on disaster connected issues—those impacted by disasters have legal needs that continue for years. Quote for BP 2

The Start of Coordinating National Legal Services Post-Disaster

President Carter’s 1979 establishment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shaped the details of domestic disaster response and Recovery. FEMA coordinates all assistance by the federal government in response to declared disasters and emergencies, including post-disaster legal services. FEMA has worked to fulfill its duty to provide the Disaster Legal Services Program primarily through the use of volunteer lawyers who are not engaged to provide services until after the disaster has struck. In post-disaster Louisiana, reflection on FEMA’s volunteer-driven model called for better coordination and communication between state legal assistance entities and the three branches of government.

Improvements to the National Model to Provide Legal Services Post-Disaster

Notably, the LSC did not begin to collaborate formally with either the American Bar Association (ABA) or FEMA on disaster relief until after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, the LSC has increased its capacity to address legal needs after disasters. In the years since Hurricane Katrina, the LSC has built a stronger network to handle both disaster preparation and response. For example, LSC staff members have trained participating attorneys. Additionally, FEMA is now tasked with making direct referrals to LSC organizations. The LSC has also convened the National Legal Aid Disaster Network to handle phone calls regarding post-disaster issues as needs have arisen. In 2008, the National Disaster Legal Aid website was launched, sponsored by the LSC, the ABA, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and Pro Bono Net.

Policy Recommendations for Post-Disaster Legal Aid Services

– The National Center for Access to Justice has highlighted new models to provide alternatives to lawyers such as help desks, pro se clerk’s offices, computer kiosks, forms, call centers, and the use of non-lawyer staff.

– Answering the calls for additional funding and a commitment to a civil right to counsel would expand the provision of legal services, especially in the post-disaster context.

– The agency should provide funding to LSC so that LSC offices may choose to provide the agency with feedback and comments on disaster policy.

– LSC offices could, with funding, more meaningfully participate in the ongoing training of volunteer attorneys so that when disaster hits, there is a cadre of trained attorneys available.

– FEMA should provide regular written and webinar updates to all LSC offices regarding post-disaster programs so that as FEMA creates policy and program changes from disaster to disaster, LSC offices around the country remain up to date.

– FEMA should also fund specific networks of LSC offices to establish disaster assistance departments that would, in turn, develop expertise and advise and guide other LSC offices as needed following disasters.

– Moreover, FEMA should establish partnerships with and fund additional non-LSC pro bono legal services organizations that serve low-income people as a means to build capacity beyond LSC organizations.

– FEMA should prioritize building networks of community organizations that provide legal services organizations with fact-finding tools to assist in the provision of legal aid to low-income people after disasters.

– Finally, mediation services for individual disaster assistance recipients should be funded as part of the disaster legal services budget.  Any of these approaches would enable greater access to legal services for indigent populations in the aftermath of disasters.

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This entry was posted on November 21, 2014 by in General, Reports.

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