SPBG creates legal taskforce to aid victims of the tsunami

Several of the world’s largest law firms have responded overwhelmingly to an appeal from the Solicitors Pro Bono Group (SPBG) to help families and businesses hit by the Asian tsunami.

SPBG chief executive Susan Bucknall sent a general appeal out to the group’s database of firms after the giant wave hit on Boxing Day. She said the response had been “excellent”.

As well as more than 50 individual lawyers who have pledged their services to the SPBG, 12 law firms have offered to help the group in its efforts. City law firms Clifford Chance, Clyde & Co, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, Lovells, SJ Berwin and Travers Smith have been joined by US firms Arnold & Porter, Covington & Burling, Dewey Ballantine and White & Case. Westminster firm JA Forrest & Co is also involved in the project.

Following the terrorist attacks in New York on 11 September 2001, the Foreign Office contacted the SPBG asking for legal help. The post-tsunami appeal was launched in anticipation of a similar request this time around, and is aimed specifically at legal work rather than the financial support many firms are giving independently.

Bucknall said the legal support will initially be aimed at helping UK families and businesses affected by the tsunami. In the short term, problems are expected to include obtaining death certificates for those killed in the disaster. If a body cannot be found, then it can be difficult for families to get access to the money a victim has left – which is particularly important when a family has lost its principal breadwinner.

Lawyers are also expected to be able to help in assisting with insurance claims and restarting businesses that were destroyed by the tsunami and the havoc it has caused.

As yet, no requests for help have been made to the SPBG. However, Bucknall has been encouraged by the number of volunteers offering their time.

“I hope they’ll do other things during the year as well,” she said, adding that the unique talents of lawyers will be put to good use.

Although help will be restricted to UK victims to begin with, Bucknall said she hopes to be able to extend legal advice to foreigners affected by the tsunami due to the number of international firms that want to be involved. The SPBG has begun talks with Avocats San Frontières (Lawyers Without Borders), which is also keen on helping in this way.

White & Case pro bono director Felicity Kirk said the firm wanted to help because of the strong emotions involved in the disaster. “We’re trying to prepare ourselves to see what we can do,” she added.
Bucknall thinks legal assistance will be needed for some time to help people recover from the tragedy.