6 Ways To Improve Veterans' Access To Civil Legal Aid

By Ronald Flagg and Isabelle Ord | July 25, 2021, 8:02 PM EDT

Ronald Flagg
Isabelle Ord
Military service members far too often return from risking their lives in defense of our freedoms only to face challenges that can be as daunting as the enemies they confronted on the battlefield.

Many veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, unemployment, domestic violence, mental illness and homelessness.

If left unaddressed, these issues may also bring veterans into contact with the criminal justice system.

And civil legal problems — including evictions, foreclosures, child custody disputes and a host of issues resulting from other-than-honorable discharges — are often among the biggest barriers to a successful transition to civilian life.

The Legal Service Corp.'s 2017 report, "The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans,"[1] found that 71% of households with veterans or service members reported a civil legal problem in the previous year, with 1 in 5 respondents experiencing six or more civil legal problems over the previous 12 months.

More than 30% of low-income households with veterans or other military personnel require legal assistance for consumer and financial issues.

And while a yearly average of 1.3 million veteran households received aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) between 2016 and 2018,[2] low-income veterans and other military personnel received inadequate or no professional legal help for nearly 90% of their civil legal problems in 2017.

This particularly pernicious aspect of the access-to-justice gap helped prompt the Legal Services Corp. to establish the Veterans Task Force in January 2020.

The task force has a four-pronged mission:

  • Raise awareness about the civil legal aid issues faced by veterans;

  • Strengthen relationships between civil legal aid providers and other organizations serving veterans, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, treatment courts and advocacy groups;

  • Highlight model service-delivery programs; and

  • Boost pro bono representation of veterans.

The 43-member task force[3] released its report[4] in late May, just prior to Memorial Day. Below are some of the report's key takeaways and recommendations for legal aid providers, law firms, corporate law departments, state and local governments, Congress and the LSC.

Connect with transitioning service members as early as possible.

All service members preparing to reenter civilian life must participate in transition assistance programs, or TAP. These programs offer an ideal opportunity for civil legal aid providers to connect with soon-to-be-veterans before they separate — and scatter across the country.

Through such programs, service members receive transition assistance counseling in seeking employment, entering or returning to college, or starting their own businesses upon separating.

Service members are also assessed for their risk of becoming unemployed after discharge.

Legal aid providers should work with the TAP offices at military installations near them to screen separating service members for potential civil legal issues and ensure that they receive information about the availability of civil legal aid providers to resolve their issues.

Legal aid providers should further expand these efforts to members of Reserve and National Guard units serving on active duty, and identify additional opportunities to work more closely with advocacy groups and other organizations that assist veterans.

Embrace the "no wrong door" model.

As its name suggests, the "no wrong door" model of service delivery ensures that the first provider a veteran contacts either directly provides services or connects the veteran with a more appropriate network partner.

This model allows veterans to tell their story once and be linked with the services they need, rather than having to repeatedly seek services that require multiple intakes with several agencies.

Legal aid providers should collaborate with other local organizations that serve veterans to create a unified intake system, where possible, that will evaluate veterans' needs and provide them with direct connections to the organizations that can assist them with their problem.

With an estimated 6,500 organizations providing veteran-specific services in this country[5] (and an additional 40,000 service providers supporting populations with the same legal, social and health issues that many veterans face), the silo-driven approach does not provide services in a holistic manner, nor is it a sustainable model.

Remote service delivery is here to stay.

The COVID-19 pandemic's paradigm shift toward a greater reliance on working from home, remote learning, telemedicine and other forms of virtual interaction has similarly had an outsized impact on our profession.[6]

While a return to in-person court hearings is already happening, legal aid providers must seize the moment to expand their capacity to connect with clients remotely, eliminating the barriers of travel time and costs.

Leverage the LSC's legal technology offerings to expand veterans' access to online legal assistance.

Through its Technology Initiative Grant program, the LSC has long utilized technology to better meet the legal needs of low-income Americans.

These efforts include the creation of statewide legal information websites and self-help tools for self-represented litigants, and funding the purchase of videoconferencing equipment to enable grantees to connect their staff and pro bono advocates in urban offices with clients in rural areas and those unable to travel.

Legal aid organizations should utilize these resources.

Meanwhile, the LSC's continued collaboration with software developers, telecommunications companies and marketing firms to identify and promote available resources, as well as leverage new technological innovations to improve veterans' access to legal assistance, is vital.

Establish a national coordinator for veterans' legal services.

From the nonprofit Code of Support Foundation's PATRIOTLink interactive database to the VA's Community Veterans Engagement Boards, several national and local models of coordinated service delivery exist.

Those exemplars, though, don't necessarily incorporate civil legal aid providers or recipients in their efforts.

As the nation's single largest funder of civil legal aid, the LSC is in a unique position to leverage those connections to ensure that such coordinated service networks include civil legal aid providers, either as the lead agency or by identifying another national partner to take on that role.

The LSC will consult with other national organizations that provide legal assistance to veterans to determine how best to establish or identify a national coordinator.

Make public space available for attorneys to provide legal assistance to veterans.

State and local governments can and should provide appropriate funding support for civil legal aid to veterans. They're also in a unique position to help elevate and expand service delivery simply by opening schools, city halls, state veterans agencies' office buildings, libraries and other public spaces where legal aid providers can better meet veteran clients on their home turf.

The several dozen medical-legal partnerships[7] that integrate lawyers into health care settings at VA facilities, such as Connecticut's Errera Community Care Center, are a good start, but not nearly enough.

The service members who dedicate their lives to defending our country shouldn't have to fight for access to the justice system on the home front. Nor should they have to endure confusion, barriers and a lack of coordination among service providers to get the legal and other help they need and deserve.

We hope the task force's findings serve as a call to action to the broader legal community.

Ronald Flagg is president of the Legal Services Corp.

Isabelle Ord is a partner at DLA Piper and served as co-chair of the LSC Veterans Task Force's Legal Issues Working Group. She is a former captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, served in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, and was a paratrooper.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email expertanalysis@law360.com

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations, their clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] https://www.lsc.gov/media-center/publications/2017-justice-gap-report.

[2] https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/snap-helps-13-million-low-income-veterans-including-thousands-in-every.

[3] https://www.lsc.gov/about-lsc/veterans-task-force.

[4] https://www.lsc.gov/our-impact/publications/other-publications-and-reports/lsc-veterans-task-force-report.

[5] https://bobwoodrufffoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Community-Collaboration-for-Americas-Veterans-Insights-from-the-Bob-Woodruff-Foundations-Local-Partner-Self-Assessment-Tool.pdf.

[6] https://www.cleveland.com/opinion/2021/04/libraries-play-a-vital-role-in-expanding-access-to-justice-ronald-flagg-and-felton-thomas-jr.html.

[7] https://ctmirror.org/category/ct-viewpoints/connecticut-medical-legal-partnership-for-veterans-a-model-worth-emulating/.

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