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The NSW legal profession has rallied to support bushfire-ravaged communities in NSW, amid an unprecedented bushfire crisis that has damaged or destroyed more than 2,600 homes across the state this season.

Australia’s largest law firms have in combination pledged almost $1 million in donations to charities assisting in the crisis, including the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), the Australian Red Cross and WIRES Wildlife Rescue.

Ashurst, Gilbert + Tobin and Clayton Utz have each pledged at least $200,000 in donations to bushfire relief and recovery causes, as well as offering up to 20 days of extra paid leave for staff wishing to volunteer with organisations assisting in the bushfires such as the NSW RFS. Ashurst and Gilbert + Tobin have vowed to match staff donations to the Australian Red Cross Bushfire Appeal dollar for dollar.

A spokesperson from Herbert Smith Freehills said the firm expected total donations from the firm and staff to relief causes would be “in excess of $200,000”. The two remaining firms from the “Big Six” – King & Wood Mallesons and Allens – told LSJ of considerable donations via their partnerships but preferred to keep those numbers under wraps.

Individual solicitors and smaller firms have also opened their wallets to contribute. Many firms including DLA Piper, Maurice Blackburn, Lander & Rogers, Shine Lawyers, Dowson Turco Lawyers, Carroll & O’Dea, HFW Australia, Hall & Wilcox and Gadens contacted LSJ about various fundraising campaigns, most of which include options to donate via salary reduction schemes, and vows by the firms to match staff donations.

“Amid the devastation, it is heartening to see the strength of the Australian spirit and the strong sense of care and community that has been shown by people all over Australia, and indeed across the world,” said Amber Matthews, Managing Partner at DLA Piper Australia, in a note to staff. Her firm has enabled staff to donate directly via its payroll system to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Appeal, and has promised to match staff donations dollar for dollar up to $30,000.

Many individual lawyers across NSW volunteer with the RFS, and most firms told LSJ they are offering additional paid leave to those staff called upon to fight blazes on the front line.

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Pictured: Special Counsel Anne Kinnear from Carroll & O'Dea Lawyers in Newcastle is a volunteer with the NSW RFS and recently had to defend her own home in the bushfire crisis. Her firm has offered staff extra paid leave to spend time volunteering with organisations working in bushfire relief efforts. It is also coordinating a fundraising effort to donate to the NSW RFS, the Victorian Country Fire Authority, Foodbank, WIRES and the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie.

Pro bono and community legal centre support

There has also been an outpouring of support from NSW solicitors and firms offering pro bono legal assistance to communities impacted by the fires.

Law Society of NSW President Richard Harvey said a callout for pro bono volunteers, announced on Tuesday by the Law Society, drew emails from more than 200 lawyers and firms across the state offering their services.

“It’s been heartening to see the generous response from our state’s legal profession and the broader community in the wake of the devastating NSW bushfires,” the President tweeted.

Harvey and the Law Society met with the NSW Attorney-General’s office, the NSW Bar Association and Legal Aid NSW at the start of January to formulate a state-wide pro bono assistance capability. The resulting Disaster Response Legal Service NSW was announced today, offering bushfire victims access to free legal advice and services via the help line 1800 801 529.

Tim Leach, Executive Director of Community Legal Centres NSW (CLCNSW), said he was grateful and impressed by such swift action and goodwill from the legal community in NSW.

“There has been a hugely impressive display of support from all areas of the legal sector, lawyers have really come together,” said Leach. “Offers are coming in every day from firms and individuals willing to assist our community legal centres pro bono.

“The main challenge [CLCs] are facing right now is to get enough hands on deck at community legal centres in the worst-impacted areas. Areas such as our Shoalcoast centre in Nowra, which services the NSW south coast through Bateman’s Bay and Moruya, the Elizabeth Evatt centre in Katoomba, and the Mid North Coast centre in Port Macquarie.”

Leach said most CLCs operate on skeleton staff numbers over Christmas and new year holidays, but that lawyers had rallied to open their doors early in the face of increased legal needs in their communities. He said the main legal issues bushfire-impacted clients faced were related to insurance claims, tenancy issues arising from burnt properties or being unable to find housing, social security issues, and replacing important documents.

“Will we have enough resources? Right now, it is too early to tell, because right now, people are still putting out fires,” he said.

“The challenge will be over the coming weeks and months. CLCNSW has not faced a crisis of this scale while I have been Executive Director.”

Want to help? Lawyers and firms can offer their pro bono support by emailing [email protected]