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Gap in disaster volunteer protection

As 80 bushfires burned across the state yesterday, Community Legal Centres Queensland (CLCQ) offered a free webinar about legal risks and protections for volunteers in disaster responses.

HopgoodGanim Lawyers’ Pro Bono Partner Leanne Collingburn and law graduate Jacob Currie presented their recent analysis about gaps in legal protection for community volunteers who respond to disasters in Queensland during the Community volunteers: Risk and liabilities for community-led disaster response webinar.

Caxton Legal Centre lawyer Jacqui Cavanagh then spoke about her centre’s experience in providing flood recovery advice during the 2011 and 2022 floods.

Leanne described how the research sprang from a joint project of the two legal agencies last year, Justice in Focus: Water Story Series, which found communities, rather than governments, held the key to better responses to environmental disasters.

She said the research showed legislative protections from liability were available for “authorised persons”, such as ambulance officers and fire fighters, and for “authorised volunteers” (those permitted or directed to help “authorised persons”), under statutes including the Disaster Management Act 2003 (Qld), and the Public Safety Preservation Act 1986 (Qld).

“These protections, though, do not generally extend to community volunteers who step up to assist their local communities, friends and families, even in situations where authorised persons and authorised volunteers are not available,” she said.

She said the research also found that generally the state’s disaster policies did not include community volunteers and in some instances, expressly excluded them.

Jacob pointed out Queensland was the most disaster-impacted state in the country, enduring more than 97 environmental disasters since 2011.

He said risks in disasters ranged from snakes and crocodiles in floodwaters, to falling trees and loose roof sheeting during cyclones.

“Identification of these risks is the very reason why protection exists for authorised persons and authorised volunteers…we believe this protection should also be extended to community volunteers,” he said.

Jacob pointed out all other states and territory had enacted provisions that protected community volunteers against civil liability, and that in 2007, State Parliament did not enact the Civil Liability (Good Samaritan) Amendment Bill 2007 (Qld) which would have brought Queensland in line.

Jacqui spoke about Caxton’s lessons learned from the January 2011 and February 2022 floods.

She said to prepare for the next disaster, community legal centres should aim to build relationships with recovery organisations, maintain relationships with formal volunteers, and advocate for change.

The webinar was offered as part of the Disaster Resilience and Capacity Building Project led by CLCQ, jointly funded by Queensland Reconstruction Authority and the Commonwealth Government.

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