Montgomery, Alabama May 4, 2011 – Thousands of Alabama State Bar members are mobilizing to provide free legal assistance to families, businesses and individuals affected by last week’s tornado rampage.
A Disaster Legal Helpline 1-800-354-6154 has been activated to aid the residents of the affected counties which have been declared a disaster area by federal authorities. State Bar President Alyce M. Spruell of Northport (Spruell & Powell LLC) said, “Our bar has a tradition of outreach and service to the community. In addition to individual volunteer work being done by our members throughout the affected areas, our members do what they can to provide free legal advice to help tornado survivors return their lives to normal as soon as possible.”
The state bar began recruiting lawyers to volunteer their time and expertise to help disaster survivors last Thursday. As affected counties begin to evaluate their needs, members of the bar’s Volunteer Lawyers Program will be available to staff walk-in disaster legal clinics starting on May 23. In a unique partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), members of the Alabama State Bar’s Young Lawyers Section will also assist families at the designated Disaster Recovery Centers.
According to Spruell, some lawyers have volunteered to assist by posting to their Twitter feeds or facebook pages. The purpose of the legal helpline is to provide free legal information and answer disaster-related legal questions, not to provide legal representation. Attorney volunteers, who can include but are not restricted to young lawyers, screen incoming calls and accept pro bono referrals from the helpline. The volunteer attorneys are not permitted to accept legal business from callers. This is strictly a public service.
As calls start coming in, lawyers staffing the helpline simply do what lawyers do best — issue spotting. These volunteers identify the legal issues buried in the scenarios presented by each caller, obtain the caller’s contact information, and, if possible, refer the caller to an appropriate agency providing assistance in the wake of the disaster (e.g., Volunteer Lawyer programs, shelters, food banks, government claims processing units, etc.).
According to Spruell, individuals affected by a disaster appreciate the bar’s assistance in clarifying a variety of confusing legal questions, which include help with insurance claims, counseling on landlord-tenant and other housing problems (a significant issue in a college town like Tuscaloosa), reviewing home repair contracts, resolving consumer protection matters, dealing with mortgage foreclosure problems, replacing or writing wills, and drafting powers of attorney.
Typically, a disaster helpline becomes operational a few days after a major disaster is declared. This gives the disaster survivors time to attend to more pressing matters, such as obtaining shelter and food and addressing their immediate losses and needs.
After a short time, however, disaster survivors begin to recognize that they need legal help in putting their lives back in order.
The helpline number is advertised on radio and television with the help of the Alabama State Broadcasters Association, in newspapers, and generally made available from all governmental agencies responding to the disaster.
The 16,600-member Alabama State Bar is dedicated to promoting the professional responsibility, competence and satisfaction of its members; improving the administration of justice, and increasing public understanding and respect for the law.