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Japan: New Law to Expand Legal Aid for Earthquake Victims

(May 7, 2012) After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, many people in the Tohoku region of Japan have faced various legal problems, such as the right to succession from quake victims, to obtain special relief from housing loans for destroyed houses, and to seek damages stemming from the nuclear disaster. A new law has recently been enacted to assist the disaster victims for a limited time by expanding the legal aid available to them.

The Act Concerning Special Legal Aid by the Japan Legal Support Center to Assist Victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake [hereinafter Special Act] (Higashi Nihon daishinsai no hisaisha ni taisuru enjo no tame no Nihon Shiho Shien Senta no gyomu no tokurei ni kansuru horitsu) was promulgated on March 29, 2012. (Act No. 6 of Mar. 29, 2012.) The Japan Legal Support Center (JLSC) is a public corporation established under the Comprehensive Legal Support Act. (Sogo horitsu shien ho, Act No. 74 of June 2, 2004.) An overview of the services of the JLSC is available on its website (last visited May 2, 2012). An English translation of the Comprehensive Legal Support Act is also available on that webpage.

The JLSC has lent legal fees to people whose income or assets are below a set amount. The new Act removes these income or asset limitations for earthquake victims. It also expands the types of procedures that the JLSC services cover. Whereas the regular legal aid, as covered under the Comprehensive Legal Support Act, is available to cover civil, family, or administrative legal procedures, the Special Act additionally covers a procedure to claim damages directly from the Tokyo Electric Company, which is held responsible for the nuclear disaster, as well as alternative dispute resolution procedures relating to the nuclear disaster. (Press Release, “Higashi Nihon dai shinsai hisaisha enjo tokurei ho (Shinsaitokurei ho)” ni tsuite [Regarding “Special Act on Legal Aid for Victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake (Earthquake Victim Special Act)”], Mar. 23, 2012, JLSC website.)

The Special Act also stipulates coverage of legal aid procedures carried out under the jurisdiction of administrative agencies, such as complaints based on denial of welfare or special tax deductions or exemptions. Under the usual terms of the granting of legal aid, anyone who borrows money to cover legal fees is required to start payment immediately after the fee has been paid to a lawyer, but under the Special Act, a legal aid user may start payment of the loan after the case has been handled. (Id.; Special Act, art. 3; & Comprehensive Legal Support Act, art. 30.)