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New Jersey’s state attorney general and State Bar Association have created a joint program to assist victims of “mass-scale” disasters, such as the World Trade Center attacks, with free legal help. The move formalizes a relationship the Bar had developed with the attorney general’s office after Sept. 11, 2001. It also provides a definitive, state-sanctioned system to prevent ambulance-chasing of the sort seen at the Edison pipeline explosion in 1994, when lawyers drove a camper van with an ad on the side to an evacuation shelter and refused to leave a Red Cross tent where they were trolling for clients. The Edison scenario moved the Bar to start its Mass Disaster Response Program, which offered pro bono help to dozens of families whose homes were flooded in Bound Brook by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The program got a further workout after Sept. 11, when the Bar set up a telephone hotline and a tent in Liberty State Park, across from the WTC twin towers, to funnel survivors to pro bono lawyers. “These makeshift offices were covered by our volunteers seven days a week, from morning to night, for several months until the Center was eventually closed down,” said Bar President Karol Corbin Walker in a statement. The families of those affected by massive disasters tend to need an array of advice in several areas: probate, insurance and landlord-tenant counsel, for instance. “In the aftermath of Sept. 11, what we learned is that there are individuals who have real-life legal problems both in the public and private sector,” Attorney General Peter Harvey says. “If there’s no body, how does one prove death and get a death certificate so that one can make a claim against a life insurance policy? If you can’t get payment, you can’t pay your bills.” About 200 deputy attorneys general and 75 volunteer Bar lawyers assisted with the post-Sept. 11 effort, many of them from the Essex and Bergen county bars, according to Harvey. The Bar also produced a handbook and a list of resources for lawyers volunteering their efforts. According to the Bar, 682 families from New Jersey lost someone at the World Trade Center. Of those, 173 were assisted at Liberty State Park by the Bar and the Attorney General’s Office. About 400 clients received some form of free legal assistance overall, the Bar estimated in 2001. Volunteers typically must pass an Office of Attorney Ethics background check and pledge to refrain from referring victims to any other attorney who would charge a fee for services in connection with the disaster, Walker says. The new program does two main things: It provides contact lists at the Bar and the Attorney General’s Office that can be activated in the event of a disaster, and it provides credentials that will allow pro bono lawyers access to disaster areas. After Hurricane Floyd, for instance, troopers sealed off entire neighborhoods to prevent looting. Similarly, after Sept. 11, the Jersey City waterfront was shut down by local police. The credentialing program and contact list will allow the Bar’s volunteers to muster quickly at the right place during an emergency. “The best part about it is that it’s free,” Harvey adds.

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