Legal aid provided to flood victims
LEGAL Aid NSW lawyer, Emma Heagney, was one of a number of Legal Aid lawyers based in Lismore who assisted both during and after the post-Cyclone Debbie event.
She advises that, even in a situation where houses may be badly impacted such as they were during the flood, tenants are always obliged to keep paying rent "unless there's an order of the tribunal that they don't pay rent."
"So we never advise tenants not to pay rent but we give them advice about their option to apply to the tribunal for compensation.
"The landlord's obligation is to provide the property in a habitable state, so while the property is not habitable we would argue to the tribunal that, for that period, whatever rent that should have been paid, or was paid, ought to be returned to the client by way of compensation," she said.
Legal Aid lawyers were stationed both at the disaster recovery centre in Lismore and the Disaster recovery centre in Murwillumbah in the five or six weeks following the event.
"In the early days immediately after the cyclone hit we found that a lot of people were just after information. At that stage a lot of legal problems hadn't really manifested. We also found a lot of people were really just wanting to talk and share their stories about what had happened to them," said Ms Heagney.
"Probably most of the initial queries were related to insurance and helping people work out what their options were if they weren't covered. And if they were covered but weren't happy with the insurer, how to ask for a review of that decision.
"So, it was quite common for us to look at home owners insurance policies and tell people if they had cover or not and if they had cover, what we could do to help them from there.
"In quite a few cases we were able to advocate for clients as opposed to their insurer and get them a better outcome, in terms of the benefit paid."
When asked if a lot of insurance companies weren't paying when they should have Ms Heagney said, "No...we mostly helped people negotiate better outcomes or just assisted them through the claims process."
"I think we helped over 300 people at the disaster centres and then of course we've had ongoing matters coming through our Lismore office...since the disaster recovery shut down."
Tenancy was the other issue that kept Legal Aid lawyers busy.
"People's homes were damaged and we had a lot of families coming to ask for a hand because the landlords were failing to do the repairs or continuing to charge full rent in circumstances where the properties weren't liveable," said Ms Heagney.
"One matter we had that went to the tribunal was a single mum who, both her home and workplace were flooded, so she fell into rental arrears but at the same time the damage to her property wasn't repaired properly. So we were able to assist her to negotiate an outcome with the landlord where all the back-rent was waived and the repairs were done so that really helped her get back on her feet.
It wasn't always easy for tenants to find somewhere to go while the properties were being repaired.
"But from a legal perspective those were the issues we saw mostly, the issue of - what is the landlord's obligation to repair and what is the tenants right to a rent abatement while the property is not habitable," said Ms Heagney.
Up until the end of last year Legal Aid were still seeing a few housing matters.
Looking forward, are there knock on effects in terms of tenancy?
"You're certainly not deprived of your rights under the residential tenancy act because you live in a flood zone," said Ms Heagney.
Of the overall experience she said: "It was just a pleasure working with people I guess and being able to help them try and get back on their feet having been through something so traumatic and difficult."