Legislation & Lobbying

ABA: New Law Would Help Soldiers Focus on Missions Abroad Instead of Legal Problems at Home

For years, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act has helped protect those on active duty, allowing them to, among other things, terminate leases and capping the interest rate creditors can charge at 6 percent. But to invoke these protections military personnel may need a lawyer.

Yet even with representation, some creditors have argued that the federal statute didn’t provide a private right of action.

That argument should now be eliminated thanks to a package of veterans bills approved by the House of Representatives last month and awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature, says Donald Guter, president and dean of South Texas College of Law and chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel.

Among the bills is legislation that the American Bar Association helped create that expressly recognizes those seeking to invoke their SCRA protections have a right to sue to enforce them.

For members of the United States military serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, a consumer or family law issue is a potentially life-threatening problem.

That’s because of what it can do to the combat-readiness of a soldier on active duty in a war zone, Guter says.

“When you’re in combat, it’s life or death, obviously,” says Guter, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy JAG Corps who is now a law school dean. “Any kind of distraction you might have … could cost you or someone else their life.”

After the bills passed the House, ABA President Stephen Zack, said “It is unacceptable that someone fighting in the Afghan desert should have to worry that his house will be foreclosed upon, or car repossessed. The steps taken …will ensure servicemembers and the Justice Department have new options to pursue those who wronged them.”

He and Guter noted that the ABA has been active in efforts to assist servicemembers in need of legal services.

Guter points to the ABA Military Pro Bono Project administered by his committee as a primary source of assistance for those who need a lawyer to enforce their rights under the SCRA.

It is carefully administered to make the most efficient use of volunteer private lawyer time. Guter explains that Servicemembers must first go to the JAG Corps for their branch of the service for help and then, if a JAG Corps lawyer can’t resolve the issue, the military attorney goes to the head of that JAG Corps office for a referral to LAMP. The head of the office contacts Jason Vail, who serves as LAMP’s military pro bono project director, and he reviews the matter to see if it is suitable for referral and who is the best lawyer to refer it to.

The project presently has about 700 private lawyer volunteers throughout the country, Guter notes. After a referral is made, he says,”sometimes all it takes is a letter expressing the concern of the attorney” to resolve the problem.

Ideally, a volunteer lawyer is familiar with a relevant practice area, such as consumer or family law. But there are seasoned practitioners who have agreed to serve as mentors among the attorneys participating in the military pro bono project. So “we probably wouldn’t turn away anyone who has no experience, as long as they’re willing to learn,” Guter says.

Adds Vail, “Cases tend to be fairly discrete simply matters where just having a lawyer, a local lawyer, makes all the difference in the world.”

It’s not unusual for a creditor, for example, to shrug off a JAG Corps lawyer’s attempts to resolve an issue, because the military attorney probably isn’t locally licensed and hence can’t take the matter to court. But in one such case, Vail says he was able to find the servicemember not simply a local volunteer attorney but a local volunteer attorney who “happened to know the opposing counsel. And, within a couple of hours, he was able to get his money back from the creditor.”

LAMP is also working to set up a project to write a “bench book” that would explain relevant law to volunteer lawyers, Guter notes.

The committee won a Support of Military Families award last month from the National Military Family Association, which was presented in a Capitol Hill ceremony.

“Helping people is why lawyers become lawyers, and there is no higher calling than to be able to provide that help to our fighting men and women and their families,” said ABA President-Elect Bill Robinson, who accepted the award on the ABA’s behalf along with Guter. “This award is a terrific honor, and one that will inspire us as we continue to strengthen and expand our work on behalf of the American military and its veterans.”

An ABA press release provides further details.

Those looking to volunteer with the pro bono project can find information here.

Additional coverage:

Dialogue Magazine (American Bar Association): “Military Pro Bono Project Update”

Daily Record: “An opportunity to serve those who serve us”

Suffolk News-Herald: “Supporting those who serve”

Inside Track (State Bar of Wisconsin): “I’m Retired. I Have No Active Practice. But I Do Have a Client. He’s a Soldier Serving With the U.S. Army in Iraq”

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.