DISASTERS: GROUPS, FUNDS AND BENEFITS.
The three major sources of compensation for those injured or bereaved by the disaster are Charitable or Trust Funds, Statutory Schemes and Civil Law Claims. In terms of chronology, it makes sense to deal with them in that order, for payments may be made from the first two sources within hours or days of the disaster occurring, whereas legal settlement will often take years.
As a part of the essential background of the aftermath of disaster, two features which are of immense significance to the legal processes and practices are the role of the Media in informing, commenting upon and interpreting events, and secondly support groups for survivors and relatives. There is also an interplay between the two, with the groups pursuing campaigns on behalf of their own members or of the others through newspapers and television channels.
The roles played by Media or by Support Groups and Lawyer Groups are pivotal in providing a platform for compensation claims.
Among professional groups, Journalists and Lawyers are central to the whole process of disaster response. Modern Communication Systems have undoubtedly contributed to public perceptions of disasters.
One of the overlooked points about media portrayals of disaster is that they are not merely self-serving; people involved in disasters do gain benefits from the publicity in a number of ways.
First, it confirms the importance of their experience. People have seen the failure to report an event as a denial of the trauma.
Secondly, it enables people to convert for the benefit of others their loved one from the statistic into a person who had personality and a personal history.
Thirdly, the media can help promote financial appeals and
Fourthly, the publicity can help to fuel campaigns for safety improvements, enquiries, compensation and so on, all of which are regarded by many of those involved as important ways of bringing goods tragedy. These emotions should be taken seriously.
Public responses to disasters are dependent on media portrayals which both inform on and reconstruct the event. This helps survivors and relatives, especially when they are geographically dispersed, to co-ordinate with support group. Another frequent action is to set up a fund with appeals for contributions made through print and television.
A significant feature of disaster aftermath in the UK in the last 10 years has been the development of support groups. Such groups are noteworthy because they underline what makes out a disaster from an individual tragedy. The survivors and the bereaved relatives following a motorway accident will experience many of the relatives of the same physical and emotional traumas as those involved in disasters. But disasters, precisely for the reasons that they become classified as such, bring forth an entirely different scale of response.
Support groups provide a forum in which those effective can share their experience amongst a group of people who have some comprehension of the kinds of feelings they are suffering. The group is both a source of information and the means of communication, the group also acts on behalf members in negotiating the various legal structures, and as an important part of that approval process, provide a channel for communication with the media. Support Groups can exploit the intense media interest in disasters by campaigning for public in enquiries, by lobbying for better levels of compensation and for safety changes. This lobbying is often conducted in association with the legal representatives.
The launch of an appeal for funds to assist survivors could almost be regarded as one of the necessary definitional requirements of a disaster. The amount raised by such appeals varies greatly and not necessarily in any obvious relation to the numbers on needs of those affected. The funds for the 28 victims of the explosion in the Flixborough chemical works came to €50,000, with the Herald fund raised nearly €4 million.
At one time it was assumed that a disaster fund would necessarily be charitable, but judicial doubt began to emerge as to whether a fund would satisfy the criterion of benefiting the public or a section of it, essential to a charitable trust.
Two cases can be contrasted: an appeal launch to relieve those affected by flood flooding in the South West in 1953 was regarded as having public benefit, while a fund established in response to a bus crash which killed 24 marine cadets was not. Thus, a disaster fund is not automatically charitable; to be charitable there should be an expression that it will only be distributed to individuals on the grounds of needs, or it has been devised in a way which brings in under the head of beneficial purposes which envisages a border section of the public. It is often wise for the terms of fund to include both these purposes so that money surplus to need can be used for wider public benefit.
In numerical terms statutory benefit claims are the most significant source of financial assistance for victims of accidents. However in monetary terms the amount paid are tiny in comparison with those gained as a result of tortious action. Less than 10% of the accident victims overall receive tort damages, yet their total value amounts to half the total paid to recipients of statutory benefit. Amongst accident victims, it is already known that the two groups most likely to sue in tort are those injured at work and in traffic accidents, for the simple reason that the both types of activity are subject to schemes of compulsory insurance.
Further form of State benefit which ought to be of practical significance is the Legal Aid System. Unfortunately the impact of this has been greatly reduced over the last decade with the number of people qualifying for it ever decreasing. Whereas in 1979 it was estimated that 80% of the households were eligible, now a figure of 48% administered by the legal aid board, the scheme has three main types of assistance: advise, representation and reimbursement of cost. In addition, it is still possible to obtain half an hour of legal advice for €5.00 under the Green Form scheme.
The account of benefits of compensation through charitable funds and benefits of the scheme is, unpredictable, uneven and even outside the control of the recipients, because Legal Actions whether in form of Civil Liability Claims, or pressure for criminal prosecution more directly by the survivors and the families of the victims of disasters themselves are all based upon several unforeseeable imponderables. The support groups provide one mechanism in which these campaigns are conducted.
Co-ordinated action by Lawyers is the next aspect to be considered.
The appeal is to set up a fund, the entire benefit of which will be used for those injured or bereaved in the disaster or their families and dependants as the trustees think fit.
This fund will not be charity.
Navin Kumar Jaggi