As much of the Northeast continues to recover from Hurricane Sandy, aid organizations have mobilized to help the victims of the storm begin to rebuild their lives. One area that often gets overlooked in disasters like this is the issue of legal needs. Sadly, the progress toward creating a system to make pro bono legal aid more accessible in the aftermath of a storm has been uneven.
Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that large natural disasters impact a region’s legal services in two primary ways. First, the devastation creates a tremendous strain on the legal system by increasing the number of legal issues. Disasters overburden the system as victims begin to file insurance claims, experience landlord-tenant issues and have disputes over construction contracts to name a few issues. At the same time, disasters deplete the legal infrastructure in place to deal with these issues. Mass evacuations and damage to communications infrastructure mean that lawyers are separated from their clients and staying in contact is difficult. Law offices may be damaged, inaccessible or without power, meaning that lawyers no longer have access to the relevant documents or the ability to keep track of their cases. Finally, courthouse closures can slow the system even further, leaving vulnerable people in a state of legal limbo.
Understanding these difficulties, many lawyers from across the country offered to take pro bono cases in the Gulf in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to help as the devastated justice system begin to rebuild. However, these efforts ran into initial difficulties because of Louisiana and Mississippi rules limiting the ability of out-of-state attorneys to take cases. Although the Supreme Courts of both states eventually adopted temporary rules that allowed more out-of-state aid in, this episode exposed a major deficiency in the emergency legal aid system. At a time when whole communities are devastated and people everywhere are eager to help, lawyers should not be prevented from contributing their services because of a formalistic regulation.
Since then, the American Bar Association has responded by adopting what is known as the “Katrina Rule” in 2007. The model rule is more flexible and allows out-of-state attorneys to take certain cases on a pro bono basis in the aftermath of disasters. To their credit, 16 states have adopted this rule into their own judicial systems as of July of 2012. However, the pace of reform has been uneven. Implementation is still pending in fifteen states and eight states have actively decided not to adopt this rule.
This delay and outright rejection of this type of reform is morally inexcusable in the face of devastation from a storm such as Sandy. While New York, New Jersey and Delaware have all adopted a version of the rule, Maryland is still considering adoption and Pennsylvania had already actively rejected the rule. The normal justification for unauthorized practice of law restrictions that prevent anyone but in-state attorneys from practicing is a concern about scam artists and unqualified attorneys. But these circumstances do not apply given the limited and regulated way pro bono work is allowed under the rule. In the face of so much human suffering, no resource for attending to the victims needs should be constrained by arbitrary rules. It is simply wrong to turn away willing volunteers from a disaster area that could desperately use their help.
Will Downes, a law student at Georgetown University Law Center, is a Responsive Law intern.