Disaster Legal Assistance: a Model for Service Collaboration

adminSocial security rights review

Bill Mitchell, Townsville Community Law


Social security is central to recovery from disasters of all kinds. How agencies like community legal centres respond to this issue can help communities address individual disadvantage and vulnerability before, during and after a disaster. New models of service delivery are emerging from various jurisdictions, including in Queensland in the wake of monsoonal flooding events and bushfires; and the COVID-19 pandemic is generating specific types of program policy response and service delivery. This article looks at how social security advocacy can be included within these models.

International Context

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has commented that the provision of social security is of particular importance in situations of disaster and deserves special attention. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction also notes the importance of a social safety net to address the impacts on personal income needs during disasters, and  recognises the importance of social security as a resilience building measure.

Social Security Advocacy as a Disaster Legal Need

Legal needs studies that have considered disaster legal needs recognise the importance of social security. Legal needs studies in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Japan reveal access to social security and other forms of emergency financial assistance as a critical issue in post-disaster recovery and reconstruction phases.  Importantly, studies after Hurricane Katrina revealed that people continued to experience disaster related legal issues up to a decade after the event.

Communities experience disasters with differing frequency. Some, like communities in North Queensland experience disasters (a cyclone or flooding event, or both) every couple of years. Individuals and communities need to build resilience from their experiences and service providers cannot treat disasters as one-off events. The impacts continue for many years – overlapping with, and compounded by, the next disaster. Resilience also raises issues of the scale of disaster legal assistance services, and equitable access. The effects of natural disasters are greater for people living in poverty; accordingly, services must be equity oriented. Biased recovery service allocation (for example to high-income people due to their ability to negotiate with the system) is a post-disaster recovery barrier.

Much can be done to anticipate and address the needs of vulnerable groups during catastrophic events and adequate planning will help minimise the extent to which these groups suffer disproportionately and experience devastating outcomes. Further, distributive justice theories justify allocation of scarce resources to members of vulnerable populations even if they require more intensive care or disproportionately large resource investments compared with others.

Similarly, there is a need to ensure non-discriminatory disaster relief based in human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination. To calibrate the provision of assistance to the needs of the people affected is not a violation of the principle of non-discrimination; rather, it reflects an appropriate human rights-based approach. To implement non-discriminatory assistance and protection activities, it is essential to know who the potential beneficiaries are and what their specific needs are.

Economic Justice Australia’s Members

Economic Justice Australia’s members are experts at providing specialist advice to people on their social security issues and rights, including during times of disaster. How these agencies provide services has come under consideration in recent years, through Royal Commissions and community-based projects. The Bushfire Royal Commission noted that following a natural disaster, numerous legal issues can arise, including social security issues. The Commission reported that legal assistance services play a vital role in supporting the recovery of disaster-affected communities through support and services to people and communities. They noted the importance of legal assistance activities being complementary to and partnered with government community recovery programs. The Commission also noted that delivery of legal assistance services is a key example of non-government recovery support which would benefit from greater planning.

Townsville Community Law’s project, Disaster Readiness for the Legal Assistance Sector (and the project report ‘Disaster Legal Assistance’), was funded by the Commonwealth/State Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements during 2020-2021. The project was in response to Townsville Community Law (an EJA member) identifying the need to develop a collaborative service model to provide sector-wide and issue-wide legal assistance throughout the entirety of the disaster cycle of prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.

The Disaster Legal Assistance Model

The model developed new processes: disaster legal needs assessment and disaster legal assistance planning; new collaborations and outputs of those processes: disaster legal assistance plans; and new outcomes of those processes – disaster readiness. The model relies on processes that are evidence based and is an opportunity to build capacity and create better community outcomes. The key components of the Disaster Legal Assistance Model include:

  1. Disaster legal needs
  2. Disaster legal assistance planning
  3. Disaster legal assistance plans
  4. Disaster legal assistance

The overall model uses a process (continuous feedback loop) that sits alongside the disaster cycle and enables a comprehensive approach. Each process contributes continuous feedback.

The assessment of disaster legal needs is both the starting point of planning for disaster legal assistance, and an outcome of what is learned from the experience of disasters and providing disaster legal assistance. Just as the disaster cycle is continuous, so too has disaster legal assistance been conceived. Disaster legal needs assessment processes identify the level of legal need in the relevant geographic locale and local level systemic issues that affect legal assistance. Methods of assessing disaster legal needs include consideration of geographic, demographic, and thematic issues.

The second component of disaster legal assistance is the process of disaster legal assistance planning. This component comprises state and regional legal assistance forums engaging in collaborative service planning. The National Legal Assistance Partnership Agreement notes that the focus of planning can include disaster planning (Clause B14). Disaster legal assistance planning can include tripartite processes (tiers) at state, regional and local levels. The nature, type, extent, and outcomes of planning will differ across each tier depending on the assessment of disaster legal needs and distinct community character. In each case, output will include a collaborative service plan that aligns with and is complementary to disaster governance. It should be developed in collaboration with disaster governance actors.

The third component of disaster legal assistance planning is creating disaster legal assistance plans based on legal needs assessment and planning processes. While disaster legal assistance describes the overarching model, it also describes the fourth component –  the provision of legal assistance to individuals likely to be affected / affected by disaster. Disaster legal assistance is provided after disaster legal needs assessment, disaster legal needs planning and in accordance with disaster legal assistance plans. Disaster legal assistance describes the provision of legal assistance across the disaster cycle.


EJA members could implement the disaster legal assistance model. By doing so, they would create a pilot case to test its national application. Disaster legal needs planning could occur at national and state (jurisdictional) levels, and plans could be developed to ensure equitable and human rights approach based service design.