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Flood-hit Northern Rivers legal practices struggling as system grinds to a halt amid intense demand

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 14/05/2022
The ground floor of Tracey Randall's practice was completely submerged. (ABC North Coast: Nick Parmeter) © Provided by ABC NEWS The ground floor of Tracey Randall's practice was completely submerged. (ABC North Coast: Nick Parmeter)

Ten weeks after record flooding hit Lismore and the New South Wales Northern Rivers, the region's legal framework is barely coping.

Among the two-storey businesses swamped were many of the region's legal fraternity.

Tracey Randall's practice is within sight of the Wilsons River levee.

Almost all the practice's physical documents were drowned in the muddy water.

As they try to deal with traumatised members of the local community, the lawyers are trying to pull apart pages stuck together and ruined.

"My files are coming up with lots of blank pages because the ink has just washed away," Ms Randall said.

Her office is now strewn with legal papers and preparing for court cases and legal claims is taking five times as long.

The impact on professional life is just the beginning for Ms Randall and her colleagues while they deal with personal issues.

"My partner's mother died on the third night of the flood, my daughter lost her school – we were lucky to keep our home," Ms Randall said.

Critical community legal service under strain

The Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre offers a critical service to clients who would otherwise struggle to afford or access legal aid.

They deal with some of the most vulnerable people, including women fleeing domestic violence.

For these women, the flooding catastrophe has compounded their already complicated lives.

Alison Waters manages the domestic violence service at the Community Legal Centre, where  clients have lost paperwork, and don't have printers and computers.

"People don't have the relevant paperwork, they mightn't have a printer, they don't have a rates notice," Ms Waters said.

"The workers in this community that are funded to support the most vulnerable people in our society are working out of makeshift offices, are working from home, and don't have the resources that they need right now."

The centre's legal department chief solicitor Lee Bunney said the case load was growing for the centre's other departments, adding to the stress.

"We're not really here to make money, and it's distressing for staff because they can't do what they need to do to help people," she said.

Same struggles for large practices

Even a place like Lismore's Parker & Kissane Solicitors, which employs close to 50 staff, is struggling.

Chief solicitor Kelly Waring described the current working environment as like a pressure cooker.

"Everybody is very crammed in, there's not sufficient space."

'Communication breakdown' leads to severe legal backlog

Other parts of the legal system are also dealing with flood issues, compounding soaring caseloads.

Lismore's Court House reopened only this week, while the local police force has had to operate out of the town's Southern Cross University campus.

Ms Waring said it's led to a communication breakdown, with Lismore cases being heard in neighbouring Ballina and Byron Bay.

"There have been examples where solicitors have had to personally drive their clients from one place to the other – from Byron to Ballina for example," she said.

"That's causing them huge workloads in their day – instead of being at court for an hour they're at court for half the day."

Ms Waring said the issues had caused a ripple effect across the entire legal body.

"If the defendants don't turn up because they weren't informed of the right court, that then delays the court process, you need to make another appearance.

"That puts pressure on the court lists, more pressure on the practitioners – it might be work that solicitors then have to do without charging."

Ms Randall said the issues had led to a pregnant client narrowly avoiding injury.

She said local police, also under duress, continued to check up on a woman at least 32 weeks pregnant who was on bail.

"She ended up falling down the stairs because she was terrified she was going to miss presenting at the door and being breached on the bail," Ms Randall said.

She is just one example of many facing hurdles in rebuilding their lives.

"The clients I'm dealing with are often the most vulnerable – they're the ones who have lost their houses – it's been really difficult for them," Ms Randall said.

   

Video: Northern Rivers continues to feel impact of floods as more recovery needed (Sky News Australia)

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