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Legal assistance for disaster victims

“I can’t repay loans for my house and fishing boat, which were swept away by the tsunami.”

“I was fired by my company immediately after the disaster.”

Day after day, these and other complaints are heard during legal consultations for people in areas devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Local lawyers associations have generously given counsel at evacuation centers and elsewhere. So have other lawyers who have gathered from across the country.

Legal worries are a huge burden on disaster victims. Support from lawyers must be bolstered to find compassionate solutions for the victims.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations organized three days of free legal consultations at 95 evacuation centers in Miyagi Prefecture from April 29 to May 1. A total of 305 lawyers from 11 prefectures took part in the event.

People sought advice in 1,000 cases, many related to mortgage, real estate and inheritance issues.

Consultations are also given by lawyers at evacuation centers in Fukushima Prefecture. One farmer who sought advice complained that “farm produce cannot be shipped because of groundless rumors” in the aftermath of the recent nuclear crisis in the prefecture.

Lawsuits are expected to be filed over compensation for damage. Court battles are also expected over land utilization plans and industrial revitalization during the process of recovery and reconstruction from the disaster.

The parties in such cases will have to appear in court. But many damaged areas are located far from the nearest court, and legal practioners are thin on the ground.

After the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, judges and civil affairs mediation committee members were deployed to a disaster center established at the Kobe District Court. More than 2,000 cases were brought in for consultation and mediation, and almost all were resolved in about three years.

It would be helpful if there were a center to deal intensively with legal issues related to the current disaster. The Supreme Court is looking into the possibility of increasing the number of judges in disaster areas. We want the top court to secure enough judges to meet victims’ needs as well as establish a place that can offer solutions.

How disaster victims’ legal costs will be covered is an important question. Many victims fled to evacuation centers with only the barest necessities as their houses and property were washed away.

The Japan Legal Support Center, an independent administrative agency, provides a civil affairs legal assistance system to help finance legal fees for economically distressed people. The system requires screening of personal assets and income to qualify for financial assistance. But it is necessary to apply the system flexibly.

Ideally, it is better to solve a legal dispute before the case is taken to court. To facilitate this, the Sendai Bar Association has established an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) center.

At the ADR center, lawyers and other experts serve as mediators to resolve legal disputes through talks. We suggest that other devastated areas also consider introducing the ADR system.

If legal disputes drag on, it will hamper the progress of recovery work. Now is the time for legal practioners to work together toward early solutions.

(Editorial, The Yomiuri Shimbun)

(Asia News Network)
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