The devastating floods in Queensland and New South Wales have left thousands of Australians with major property damage that will be ongoing as the flood waters start to recede. The emotional toll of surviving a disaster is compounded by the reality of physically cleaning up damaged homes and businesses – so adding to one’s mental load by making insurance claims may not be at the forefront of survivors’ priorities.  

The reality is that in the aftermath of a disaster the volume of legal issues faced by a community increases significantly, and the sooner that they can access services to help them navigate the legal system, the sooner they can begin to recover from the trauma and damage.  

The Climate and Sustainability Policy Research (CASPR) Group was commissioned by the South Australian Attorney General’s Department to evaluate the South Australian Bushfire Legal Project, which was piloted following the bushfires of January 3rd 2020. Lead researcher Associate Professor Cassandra Star took a three-pronged approach to reviewing the project, consisting of international benchmarking, interviews with community and project staff and quantitative data analysis.  

The South Australian Bushfire Legal Services: Review of current practices benchmarking saw a systematic review of academic and grey literature to determine international best practice in post-disaster service provision. The research identified that best practice services were informed by and tailored across the disaster lifecycle – preparation, preparedness, response and recovery. It requires services to display five key elements:  

  • community and client engagement;  
  • collaborative practice; 
  • context awareness; 
  • effective planning and resource allocation; and 
  • services provided and mode of delivery. 

In addition, services being delivered need to be tailored to disaster circumstances by being trauma informed, community embedded, community co-designed and culturally competent. 

The research highlights that the presence of trusted on-the-ground organisations and local partners makes a real difference to disaster affected communities. The vulnerability that people experience post- flood, bushfire and other disasters means that relationships established pre-disaster will yield the most benefit for all involved due to the sensitive nature of legal issues. With some communities in NSW having faced bushfire, multiple floods and a pandemic in three years, these relationships will be critical for effective recovery.

The importance of trust was repeatedly highlighted in client interviews. The vulnerability that people experience post- flood, bushfire and other disasters also demonstrates the critical importance of trauma-informed practice and cultural sensitivity” says Associate Professor Star.

The research also revealed that planning to provide relevant services and educating communities pre-disaster will help facilitate swift provision of legal needs post-disaster, such as insurance, tenancy issues, document replacement, advocacy and accessing government relief. 

The provision of fast and effective post-disaster legal services is crucial for flood-affected Australian communities as they begin their recovery. This CASPR report can lend some guidance to organisations providing services and partnering with local aid. It adds to CASPR’s body of research into climate and disaster resilience, which looks to build resilience to climate change at all levels from community to federal government and international partnerships. 

For more information – download the report here.