ABA President's Message

ABA Military Pro Bono Project Offers Civil Legal Assistance to US Service Members

Posted Jun 1, 2011 3:20 AM CDT
By Stephen N. Zack

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Photo of Steve Zack by Neal Bredbeck

One thing I’ve learned as ABA president is that 12 months is not long enough to tell you about all the important projects we take on. I would like to share one project with you that relates to the ABA’s increasing advocacy on behalf of our fighting men and women.

Our troops serve our country bravely and deserve our support. That is why the Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel, or LAMP, launched its Military Pro Bono Project nearly three years ago. The project—supported by the ABA Section of Litigation and the leadership of the various military legal assistance services—connects income-eligible, active-duty service members with civilian attorneys who work pro bono on civil matters that go beyond services available through military legal assistance.

FOCUS ON CIVILIAN ISSUES

The project has established a national referral network of civilian attorneys who provide pro bono representation to our troops when military legal assistance is not available for civil matters, such as consumer law issues, landlord-tenant cases or child custody battles. Military attorneys can offer guidance and analyze these cases for merit and legitimacy, but are limited in what they can do due to practice rules and military regulations that bar certain types of in-person representation.

Cases have been referred from everywhere—Afghanistan, Asia, Europe and Iraq, among others. Intake forms are available on the Internet, so a case can be referred by a military attorney from anyplace with Web access.

Some state bar associations offer similar programs, but these seldom go beyond state lines and are not coordinated with the Department of Defense. The ABA project is the first one where the military’s legal assistance services have reached out to work with the private bar.

There is no model for this, no template. We worked together to create something that was needed but had never been tried before. And since its launch, with dedicated staffing of just one part-time attorney, the project has placed around 325 cases in 41 states, with more than 1,100 attorneys helping across the country. It’s estimated that these cases represent more than $1.3 million in billable hours donated by our attorneys to service members.

One example is Ken, an Army paratrooper who learned while in Iraq that his monthly pay was being garnisheed by nearly $700 per month because of a default judgment in a child support case that dated back five years to his training at Fort Bragg near Fayetteville, N.C.

The court documents, sent to Ken’s last known address, never reached him. Nonetheless, a North Carolina judge entered a judgment against the soldier, and the county child support agency moved to take part of his wages.

Ken questioned his paternity and asked for help from Army attorneys in Iraq. They contacted the ABA’s Military Pro Bono Project in Chicago. The Law Offices of Mark E. Sullivan in Raleigh accepted the case last summer and filed a motion that the Service Members Civil Relief Act had not been properly followed. In short, the firm got the judgment suspended. After a paternity test showed that Ken was not the father, the child custody office voluntarily dismissed the case and returned about $1,800 to him that it held in escrow.

The DOD is so enthused about this project that it activated a lieutenant colonel reservist to serve as a liaison between the services and the ABA, and to promote the project to other military attorneys. In October, the judge advocate generals of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, and the staff judge advocate of the Marine Corps, thanked the ABA for “squarely addressing a need for pro bono legal support.” And recently, LAMP received the 2010 Support for Military Families Award from the National Military Family Association.

NEEDS STILL NOT MET

While the Military Pro Bono Project is a jewel in the ABA crown of projects that promote access to justice, the reality is that we are not even close to meeting the need. Many cases are grouped around military communities in states like California, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia. But the legal matters stretch coast to coast. The ABA needs more pro bono participation, especially in rural areas. We are looking to better answer the military’s call by boosting our resources. There are just too many cases in the pipeline that call out for help.

So during this patriotic holiday season, offer your support to our military personnel. Join the ABA member roster of attorneys at militaryprobono.org, and help service members with their legal issues. Or make a financial, tax-deductible contribution. Your support will transcend your community and our profession; it will help our nation. Our uniformed men and women deserve it.

For more information on the ABA Military Pro Bono Project or to learn how you or your firm can contribute, please e-mail militaryprobono@americanbar.org.

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