The Florida Bar has raised the income qualifying cap for its online legal clinic, Florida Free Legal Answers, to ensure that Floridians can access the site and post questions related to Hurricane Irma.
More than 500 attorneys signed up to volunteer for the site, (https://florida.freelegalanswers.org/), which ordinarily matches low-income Floridians with attorneys who can answer basic legal questions. The site is a collaboration between the Florida Bar and the American Bar Association, which approved the qualifying cap increase. Separately, a toll-free legal aid hotline run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be available once Hurricane Irma makes landfall.
The FEMA Legal Assistance Hotline will be available to assist low-income hurricane victims with storm-related legal help. Hurricane victims will be able to get advice on a range of topics, including securing FEMA and other benefits; filing life, medical and property insurance claims; dealing with home repair contracts and contractors; replacing wills and other important legal documents destroyed in the storm; assisting with consumer protection matters; and counseling on landlord/tenant problems.
In addition, the Florida Bar Foundation board of directors set aside $500,000 Thursday to support Florida legal aid organizations that suffer infrastructure damage or equipment losses and help their clients with hurricane-related civil legal issues in the wake of Hurricane Irma. The money comes from Florida’s share of a settlement between Bank of America, the U.S. Department of Justice and six states.
“Legal aid is critical after a natural disaster,” said Florida Bar Foundation president Jewel White, who is also a Pinellas County attorney. “Civil legal aid organizations often help clients not only in the immediate aftermath of a disaster but for years afterwards as they work to rebuild their lives and businesses. We want to make sure Florida’s civil legal aid delivery system is equipped for the massive job ahead.”
The Florida Bar Foundation created a Florida Hurricane Legal Aid Fund, (information at https://thefloridabarfoundation.org/storm-aid) to collect donations to supplement the $500,000 allocation. The page also offers links to volunteer opportunities for Florida lawyers, including FloridaProBonoMatters.org, where attorneys can register their interest in pro bono cases in Florida.
The donations to https://thefloridabarfoundation.org/florida-hurricane-legal-aid-fund/ will go to civil legal assistance for Floridians affected by Hurricane Irma and any subsequent hurricanes that make landfall in Florida.
• Floridians can find their local legal aid organization at https://FloridaLawHelp.org.
• The Florida Bar’s consumer guide, https://www.floridabar.org/public/consumer/pamphlet023/, provides information on whom to contact for legal assistance and how to protect legal rights in a mass disaster.
• To check for updates on all court closures and tolling orders, check the Florida Supreme Court webpage, http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/emergency.shtml.
• Florida law prohibits extreme increases in the price of essential commodities, such as food, water, hotels, storage units, ice, gasoline, lumber, equipment or other essentials needed as a direct result of an officially declared emergency. The price must not grossly exceed the commodity’s average price during the 30 days before the declaration of the state of emergency, unless the seller can justify the price by showing increases in its costs or market trends.
Violators of the price gouging statute are subject to civil penalties of $1,000 per violation and up to $25,000 for multiple violations in a single 24-hour period, in addition to other misdemeanor charges and civil penalties that may apply.
Anyone who suspects price gouging during the declared state of emergency should report it to the Attorney General’s Office: 1-866-9-NO-SCAM.
• Problems with an insurance company can be directed to the Florida Attorney General’s Office at 866-966-7226 or the Florida Department of Financial Services at 800-342-2762.
• Incidents of fraud may increase during emergencies. Contact by a lawyer or a lawyer’s representative in person or by telephone asking to handle a specific case is a direct violation of The Florida Bar’s disciplinary rules, unless the injured party has asked the lawyer to contact them. Bar rules prohibit a lawyer from writing or emailing within 30 days of an accident unless they have been specifically asked to provide information.
To report unlawful contact, the unlicensed practice of law, or unfair treatment by a lawyer, consumers should call The Florida Bar’s Attorney Consumer Assistance Program: 866-352-0707. The Florida Bar is responsible for prosecuting unethical lawyers for sanctions to be imposed by the Florida Supreme Court.