The case for national disaster legal aid in the UK
In this entry we examine whether the UK should follow the American example of having a national agency that provides free and immediate legal assistance to survivors of disasters, as well as resources for lawyers and information for individuals on the legal implications of such disasters. This topic will be considered in light of the aftermath of the devastating Grenfell Tower fire.
The fire in Grenfell Tower that caused 72 deaths, over 70 injuries and left hundreds traumatised is one of the greatest disasters in recent British history. Dealing with the consequent housing, insurance, injury and inquest issues all have legal implications but how and where this is provided has still not yet been fully addressed, We know that free legal advice services and charities stepped up to ensure they provided services to desperate people. However, the lack of systemic support to access to legal advice as part of an emergency service is especially concerning given the range of fundamental rights that may be affected (these include the right to life, equality rights and the right to adequate housing).
In particular, leaving the deliverance of support services to several separate organisations has the potential to hamper the coordination of action and the development of a consistent approach. This leads to an inefficient deployment of resources and may cause confusion among those affected. This is because they must decide who to approach and since they may be presented with diverging or even conflicting courses of action.
The problem of a lack of a single, accessible institution is then compounded by further difficulties. Under English law legal aid is not available for those taking part in government inquiries and legal representation has only been provided to those taking part in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry because, under the Inquiries Act 2005, the relevant government minister allowed the inquiry chairman to do so. Similarly, it had been uncertain whether eligibility of legal aid would be affected by emergency funds provided to the survivors of the fire.
Even so, the Legal Aid Agency were only granted a discretion to disregard the funds in the process of means testing (read more on this here). Even now there are concerns about the nature of legal representation, with the Alison McGovern MP outlining a parity of arms issue that is familiar from the LiP context:
“I worry about getting into a situation in which, yet again, the state has vastly more resources at its disposal for lawyers than families do”
This contrasts sharply with the American approach, where:
“through the Disaster Legal Services (DLS) Program, the [American Bar Association] Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provide immediate temporary legal assistance to disaster survivors at no charge.”
In line with this a free, national disaster distress hotline have been established for survivors who cannot afford a lawyer and a wide range of specific areas have been addressed in the 171 disasters that DLS responded to, including: landlord and tenant issues, bankruptcy and contract problems.
In addition to this the National Disaster Legal Aid website serves as a national resource for lawyers and the public on legal issues related to all types of disasters and mobilises pro bono lawyers in the aftermath of disasters. In particular, resources include such things as examples of relevant legal documents (specialised for different areas and issues), training and webinars (including documents from a training session on “Representing Consumers and Tenants” in the case of states of emergency) and fact sheets and flyers. In addition, the National Disaster Legal Aid Advocacy Centre has arranged a series of roundtable discussions where experts share their expertise on providing legal aid in the wake of disasters.
While excellent work is done by organisations such as LawWorks to support pro bono advice in emergencies, the development of comparable institutions in the UK would be welcomed. By providing a clear and consistent system for accessing legal resources in the wake of large-scale disasters this would ensure effective collaboration and allocation
of resources to provide an accessible service for those in an extremely vulnerable situation. It would also provide a focal point for efficient training of lawyers and other professionals who should know how best to respond to the issues that arise in such situations.
Perhaps Grenfell can serve as a catalyst for the creation of such initiatives, as hurricane Katrina did for the National Disaster Legal Aid website.