ABA leads efforts to deliver legal services to veterans
Millions of military personnel serve their country with honor and distinction. Yet when they return to civilian life, they can experience chronic barriers to obtaining the benefits and services they need and have earned.
Since 1917, the American Bar Association has supported protecting the rights of those who answer the call of duty. Through World Wars I and II up through the present, the ABA has helped shape the legal landscape as it applies to military families and veterans. It has accomplished this through support for pro bono legal services; public and professional education; innovation in delivering legal help; and advocacy to remove legal barriers to benefits, services and treatment.
Thanks to the persistent advocacy of ABA members working with ABA leadership and the Governmental Affairs Office, successes on the legislative and policy fronts have helped improve access to justice for service members and veterans as well as their families, caregivers and survivors.
“The ABA is committed to ensuring the men and women of the military who have served this country receive the access to justice they deserve,” says ABA President Reginald Turner. “The rule of law itself and the integrity of the justice system depend on the success of those who have sacrificed for their country.”
Many veterans lack the means to hire an attorney, and the ABA has launched wide-ranging efforts to promote pro bono legal services for veterans. In 2008, the ABA Law Student Division developed Duty Bound, a first-ever model program for law student and law school clinic advocacy supporting veterans. And in 2011, the ABA helped secure a Department of Veterans Affairs directive that helped ensure that pro bono legal clinics could be located inside of VA medical facilities.
Under guidance from the White House counsel, the ABA in 2014 launched a pro bono initiative in collaboration with the VA targeting veterans’ disability benefits claims caught in a massive backlog. And in 2017, the ABA participated in the signing of the first Memorandum of Agreement with the VA, the National Veterans Law School Clinic Consortium and the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program to prioritize strategies for removing barriers to veterans’ access to justice.
To address the special needs of veterans within the criminal justice system, the ABA developed guidelines at the request of the VA General Counsel in 2009 for establishing veterans treatment courts or other special dockets focused on veterans. These special courts offer structured intervention, treatment and integrated services to veterans who may be suffering from addiction because of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or mental illness.
A focus of the ABA’s work has also been on addressing the legal issues of veterans who are without housing. Since 2010, half of the top 10 unmet needs of homeless men and women veterans have been legal issues, according to Project CHALENG, the VA’s own survey of the needs of homeless veterans. Assistance with housing eviction and foreclosure, child support matters, quashing outstanding warrants, military discharge status upgrades or even replacing a lost photo identification card can make the difference between someone living under a bridge and living in a home with a job and supportive services.
The VA has historically lacked the authority to directly support legal assistance to veterans in crisis. That changed in the last Congress when the ABA led coalition efforts from veterans’ advocacy groups and legal assistance organizations to give the VA that authority. The Legal Services for Homeless Veterans Act was signed into law in January. It allows the VA to provide direct grants to organizations to fund a wide range of legal services—including for civil and minor criminal defense matters—to veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and to help them obtain public benefits. The act also includes a special focus on women and on ensuring relevant funding is equitably distributed to Native American veterans.
Despite these and other achievements, much work remains. The ABA will continue its efforts to protect veterans’ rights and help ensure all veterans have access to the legal services they need. They deserve no less for their selfless service.
This story was originally published in the October/November 2021 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Justice for Those Who Served: ABA leads efforts to deliver legal services to veterans.”
This report is written by the ABA's Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the U.S. government. For more information about ABA publications, CLE, and legal help for military and veteran families, visit ambar.org/veterans.