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As the response to Haiti’s earthquake turns from rescue to recovery, the legal community in South Florida and nationally is focusing on rebuilding Haiti’s legal system. The Haitian Lawyers Association and the international section of The Florida Bar met last week in Miami to discuss an initiative to rebuild a courthouse in Haiti. The Palais de Justice in downtown Port-au-Prince, once an imposing two-story white edifice, was destroyed in the devastating earthquake. Several judges, including the chief judge, were reportedly killed, according to Richard Champagne, president of the Miami-based Haitian Lawyers Association. The Bar’s international law section wants a portion of relief donations The Florida Bar is soliciting to benefit the American Red Cross to be devoted to courthouse reconstruction. The American Bar Association and International Bar Association also plan an initiative to jump-start Haiti’s justice system. The ABA has launched a Rule of Law Initiative and is recruiting for a number of positions ranging from translators to a program manager for a recovery program in Haiti. The program offers a rapid response to the earthquake and threats to Haiti’s legal system, and will support local justice-sector institutions in processing criminal cases and civil petitions during the extended recovery process, according to ABA spokeswoman Barbara Powers. But rebuilding the courthouse should be the first and most vital step, Champagne said. “Establishing the Palais de Justice is among the many stabilizing factors that need to be done in Haiti,” he said. “The courts have been destroyed. We are going to do as much as we can to encourage people in the United States to donate funds to build a new courthouse.” Among those invited to Wednesday’s meeting in Miami were a number of prominent Haitian-American lawyers, as well as Miami-Dade County Court Judge Fred Seraphin. Originally from Port-au-Prince, Seraphin is the county’s first Haitian-born judge. Seraphin, who did not return calls for comment by deadline, is also president of the Haitian Family Neighborhood Resource Center. Ed Davis, a founding partner with Astigarraga Davis in Miami, is leading The Florida Bar effort. “As soon as the immediate necessities such as food, water, medicine and tents are taken care of, the country will turn toward the longer issue of rebuilding,” he said. “The focus of our campaign is, at an appropriate time, to assist in the rebuilding of the Haitian legal infrastructure. “We’re not plumbers, and we can’t help with the sewers, but we are lawyers and understand the legal system, and rally other legal organizations to join shoulder to shoulder to rebuild the justice system.” Additionally, a number of law firms, including Holland & Knight and Foley & Lardner, have announced they will match donations made by firm personnel. Foley & Lardner’s match is 50 percent of up to $100,000 of total contributions. “This is part of the giving back that Foley does throughout the year,” a firm spokeswoman said in a statement. Though some Port-au-Prince lawyers were ready to go back to work, with the courthouse demolished, judges killed and records destroyed, the Haitian justice system has essentially ground to a halt. Rick Bajandas, a lawyer with Villanueva Bajandas & Fitzgerald of Miami, represents three of the largest companies in Haiti. He said they are starting to file insurance claims. But while some banks reopened, the courts have not. “The problem is the notaries there hold a lot of original documents, and those buildings have been destroyed, which creates a lot of havoc,” he said. Champagne said he, too, was concerned about the destruction of records, particularly because Haitian nationals may need their birth certificates to quality for the temporary protected status being offered by the U.S. government. The United States is temporarily allowing Haitians to remain in the U.S., but they must first produce passports or birth certificates, and “many Haitians don’t have their passports,” Champagne said. Ahpaly Coradith, a lawyer with the Coradin Law Group in Miami, went to Haiti to help with relief efforts. He said some lawyers have secured their files, and may have e-mail and phone communication up, but “it’s not back to business as usual. Far from that,” he said. “Homes and offices were destroyed, and it takes awhile to get back to what the normal state of affairs was,” Coradith said.

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