December 17, 2012
State Bar Association offering free legal help to Hurricane Sandy survivors
Testimony before state Assembly Committee details efforts
New Jersey State Bar Association President Kevin P. McCann testified in Trenton last week about efforts to provide free legal help to those who are facing legal issues related to Hurricane Sandy.
Here is an excerpt of his testimony:
As lawyers, we have a special obligation to give back to the community, and as the state’s largest lawyers group we are dedicated to serving as a resource for our members, the legal profession and the public in the days and weeks to come.
I am proud to appear before you today to share our experience with you. And I am pleased to have an opportunity to thank the many people and partner organizations that worked with us to respond, including the American Bar Association, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Legal Services of New Jersey, the Attorney General’s Office, Department of Labor and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. Even more, the entire legal community, from county bar associations, and specialty bar groups, such as New Jersey Association for Justice, has come together to marshal their resources to help.
I would especially like to extend my gratitude to the over 200 individual attorneys from around the state who have pledged to volunteer their help to members of the public. Our members are proving, as they have in previous disasters, that the attorneys of this state are ready to help people whose lives have been forever altered by this storm. It is in these times of crisis, that I am most proud to count myself as a member of this great profession.
Like many residents and businesses in New Jersey, the New Jersey State Bar Association lost heat, power, and water in the days following the storm. Yet even while our offices were closed the association was preparing to activate its Mass Disaster Response Program to offer free assistance to members of the public facing legal issues as result of the disaster.
Once the offices reopened, we immediately began soliciting volunteers who would be willing to aid the public through our Mass Disaster Response Program. We had offers of assistance and sought advice from our colleagues in the Gulf States, who have faced this same situation far too many times in recent years.
The New Jersey State Bar Association’s program was developed following the deadly 1994 Edison gas pipeline explosion. Following that disaster, it was apparent that the legal challenges facing the survivors were immense, and they ran the gamut of issues. Individuals needed legal guidance in the immediate aftermath of the disaster to ensure their rights were protected while they recovered from the initial shock.
The association took the lessons learned from the explosion, and developed a program where volunteer attorneys would provide immediate legal assistance following any disaster on a completely pro bono basis. Sometimes that assistance has been thorough hands-on clinics at established assistance centers, but often, as now, it has taken the form of a toll-free helpline that members of the public can call to be connected with pro bono lawyers.
Since it was established, the program has been activated several times to help the public, including following Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the terrorist attack in 2001, massive flooding in 2010, and Hurricane Irene in 2011.
On Nov. 12, our toll-free help line opened to members of the public who had suffered as a result of Hurricane Sandy.
Since then, we have received hundreds of calls from people facing legal issues that range from landlord-tenant matters, to property tax issues, to insurance disputes, to the challenges of securing funds to restore lost homes.
The members of the public who are calling us are desperate. They are scared. And they need help right away.
We are proud that over 200 attorneys have signed up to help. We are dedicated to helping as many people as we can, but more assistance is needed. The breadth of this disaster is profound. The magnitude of it goes beyond anything we have seen before.
We encourage more attorneys to volunteer through the program. It is not a requirement that volunteers must be members of the New Jersey State Bar Association. Anyone licensed to practice law in New Jersey is eligible to participate. To further that, we continue to work with the Supreme Court and county and specialty bar associations to find more volunteers. And we remain ready to work with the Attorney General’s Office, as we did following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to provide assistance to victims.
While our volunteers are well meaning and devoted, the simple truth is that our resources are limited. Our program is not designed to provide long-term legal representation to members of the public. And for many of them, that will be necessary.
We urge you to encourage more people to help and to continue to look for creative solutions to these problems.
As it has in previous disasters, the New Jersey State Bar Association and its volunteers are ready to assist people and businesses whose lives had been forever altered. While much is uncertain in times like these, I remain confident that our profession and this association’s dedication to service remains strong, and our commitment to the community is steadfast.