Meeting the Legal Needs of Military Veterans, Servicemembers, and Their Families

Today we are seeing the needs of military families being raised to level of national importance. First Lady Michelle Obama, along with Dr. Jill Biden, has made improving the lives of military families her signature issue, and this is reflected in a proposed expansion in funding for military support programs in the president’s 2011 budget. Improving the focus on military family issues is welcome, as the burdens placed on the men and women of our armed forces have increased throughout the past decade, where active-duty servicemembers have become accustomed to frequent and lengthy deployments overseas. This trend has imposed great challenges on our military families, which may not end upon the servicemember’s discharge into our already-sizable veteran population. These include, unfortunately, a full range of legal issues, many of which are unique to those currently and formerly serving in the armed forces.

As these legal needs have grown, they have been met with many local, state, and national initiatives enabling attorneys to step forward to deliver much-needed legal help to active-duty sevicemembers and veterans. And where military culture had historically adopted a “we take care of our own” attitude when it came to providing legal services to its members, the military legal assistance establishment is now grateful for the support of and collaboration with the private bar to act as a “force multiplier” to extend the range of services and legal counsel available to servicemembers, often delivered at a reduced cost or free-of-charge by the civilian attorneys.

There is much that a private bar attorney can to do aid our current and former servicemembers. Many military families encounter civil legal needs, such as:

  • landlord/tenant matters, including deposit recovery problems related to Servicemember Civil Relief Act (SCRA) lease terminations;
  • family law issues, especially child custody disputes arising around overseas deployment;
  • credit and lending problems, which can include payday loans, auto sales contracts, and interest rate reductions under the SCRA;
  • employment issues, particularly for National Guard members and Reservists needing to enforce reemployment rights;
  • guardianship needs, or estate matters on behalf of families of deceased servicemembers; and
  • securing vitally-needed benefits for veterans from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the fall of 2009, the Shriver Center published a special issue of Clearinghouse Review featuring articles written by military and civilian attorneys on these and other topics affecting veterans, servicemembers, and their families. This issue of the Review is an important tool supporting work done to expand access to justice for current and former military members, and it is available online for subscribers; nonsubscribers may purchase individual articles, or order the entire special issue. Any military legal assistance attorney may have free access to the issue through the American Bar Association Military Pro Bono Project website. Attorneys, whether in legal aid, pro bono, or private practice, can do much to help military families, and this issue of the Review illuminates how such assistance can be provided.

For more discussion on these issues and the important role that can be played by members of the civilian bar, please join our Shriver Center Dialogue on Accessing Justice: Military Veterans, Servicemembers, and Their Families, Friday, February 26, 2010, at DLA Piper 203 North LaSalle Street, Chicago, IL 60601, at 8:15 a.m. Presenters will include advocates working to meet the legal needs of this important population. We hope you will join us to find out how you can get involved with giving back to those who have sacrificed so much for us.

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