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Disaster Relief Legal Assistance

Disasters, both natural and manmade, can result in large populations in immediate need of legal assistance on a number of topics. Although it is difficult to know when disaster may strike, legal services providers can have a plan in place to mobilize community attorneys to provide pro bono assistance when necessary. Including volunteer attorneys in the plan will allow the program to provide assistance to more people, more quickly and efficiently. 

Organizing a DLA Effort

Organizing a disaster legal assistance effort entails preparing a plan to set into motion in the event of a disaster. A lead organization or person should be designated to coordinate the effort. The organizations involved should develop contingency plans for communication and other logistics. Organizations should also develop and keep current a panel of volunteers, as well as a manual covering common legal situations and available resources. In preparation for delivering legal services post-disaster, this Attorney Disaster Toolkit from Iowa Legal Aid is a helpful overview of the common legal problems experienced by disaster survivors. 

Utilizing the Internet to manage and coordinate the effort can streamline procedures. Volunteers can submit information via online forms to sign-up for pro bono opportunities. State Bar and legal aid or pro bono organizations' websites can also direct those in need of assistance to the appropriate resources, by providing information on various topics related to a specific disaster and information on how to seek assistance. The website can also include information on volunteering to provide legal assistance, an online application to volunteer, and online training materials. For example, after Hurricane Harvey, Texas Law Help developed a page devoted to Disaster Relief and Recovery information. 

National Disaster Legal Aid website gathers resources from the American Bar Association. Legal Services Corporation, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Lone Star Legal Aid and Pro Bono Net.

NEW! National Disaster Recovery & Resilience CLE Training 

Current and Emerging Issues in Disaster Response: Legal Strategies and Practices for Helping Survivors 

Pro Bono Net, Equal Justice Works, and Lone Star Legal Aid are pleased to announce a new and comprehensive Practising Law Institute training program for attorneys, community organizers, and other advocates across the United States committed to disaster response, recovery, and resilience. You can find the program materials and segment recordings here. This program is free and will be available on-demand through November 2022. Attorneys seeking CLE credit for their jurisdictions can see CLE details on the page.

The program, “Current and Emerging Issues in Disaster Response: Legal Strategies and Practices for Helping Survivors,” is divided into several segments with over twenty (20) subject-matter experts covering topics related to:

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the types of assistance programs made available after a federal major disaster declaration
  • Types of legal needs that arise after a disaster and advocacy strategies for attorneys representing disaster survivors
  • How climate disasters, laws, and other policies around disaster recovery affect survivors with disabilities, immigrant communities, and racial minorities
  • Examples of legal response frameworks and efforts in the aftermath of past major disasters
  • Uses of technology in disaster preparedness, response, and long-term recovery
  • When and how pro bono attorneys, law students, and other advocates can assist legal response efforts
Free training for Disaster Assistance

Free training for Disaster Assistance

ABA Resources

The ABA has a variety of resources available to assist with disaster response.

The American Bar Association House of Delegates at the 2007 Midyear Meeting in February overwhelmingly approved A Model Court Rule on Provision of Legal Services Following Determination of Major Disaster. The model rule would allow out-of-state lawyers to provide pro bono legal services in an affected jurisdiction and lawyers in the affected jurisdiction whose legal practices had been disrupted by a major disaster to practice law on a temporary basis in an unaffected jurisdiction. To see the status of State Implementation of this rule you may view this resource: Chart - State Implementation of ABA Model Court Rule on Provision of Legal Services Following Determination of Major Disaster

The Young Lawyers Division ("YLD") of the American Bar Association, as well as the YLD of most state bar associations, works closely with FEMA immediately following a disaster to provide legal assistance to those in need of help (see the ABA/FEMA Memorandum of Understanding). The YLD Disaster Legal Services Program provides immediate temporary legal assistance to disaster survivors at no charge.

The ABA Center for Pro Bono's website has a downloadable Disaster Legal Services Manual  prepared by the State Bar of California's California Program Development Unit of the Office of Legal Services.

ABA Free Legal Answers - The national pro bono legal advice portal serves as a critical resource for disaster survivors, providing vital assistance regarding accessing FEMA benefits, disaster-related social security and unemployment benefits, contractor fraud and others legal needs.

If you need legal assistance in the time of disaster, the ABA YLD offers Disaster Legal Hotlines

The ABA Standing Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness is committed to educating lawyers, bar associations and the justice system to prepare for and respond to disasters.

The ABA Center for Pro Bono's Knowledge Center contains additional materials concerning disaster assistance projects, including manuals for the provision of disaster legal assistance. For more information, please email the Center for Pro Bono.


Updated March 2020