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Spotlight on Pro Bono: Veterans Legal Corps tackles unmet need for nation's veterans

By Susan Zielke, ISBA Standing Committee on Delivery of Legal Services

As we celebrate Veterans Day, it is time to remember and thank the men and women who have served our country. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Access to Justice Initiative, there are more than 22 million U.S. veterans and 1.4 million service members, many of whom face serious challenges dealing with unemployment, health problems, and homelessness. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Project CHALENG survey consistently finds that four of the top 10 unmet needs of homeless veterans involve legal assistance for eviction and foreclosure prevention, child support issues, driver’s license restoration, and outstanding warrants and fines. Other top 10 unmet needs also have a legal component such as family reconciliation assistance and financial guardianships.

Because of the unmet need for legal services among our nation’s veterans, AmeriCorps and Equal Justice Works created the Veterans Legal Corps in 2013. Since its creation, the Veterans Legal Corps has consisted of around 40 attorney fellows working in legal aid and nonprofit organizations across the country to provide legal services to veterans who might not otherwise qualify for services. Fellows work with low-income and homeless veterans and help to break down barriers to success.

Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation’s Eastern Regional Office in Champaign has served as a host site for four Veterans Legal Corps Fellows, and has had at least one Fellow each year since the program started. Currently, there is one Veterans Legal Corps Fellow and one Land of Lincoln attorney serving veterans in Champaign, Clark, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, DeWitt, Douglas, Edgar, Effingham, Ford, Jasper, Macon, Moultrie, Piatt, Shelby, and Vermillion Counties. The Veterans Legal Corps at Land of Lincoln partners with the VA Illiana Health Care System in Danville, the VA outpatient clinics in Mattoon and Decatur, and local Salvation Army offices to provide legal services to veterans throughout central Illinois.

In the past two years, Veterans Legal Corps attorneys at Land of Lincoln have served more than 250 veterans and their families with over 350 different legal issues. They have assisted in areas such as housing, family, consumer, and public benefits law. Veterans Legal Corps attorneys have helped clients avoid homelessness through eviction and foreclosure defense, gain access to public housing, relieve consumer and medical debt, end creditor harassment, create wills and powers of attorney, and address family law issues, such as custody and child support.  

One veteran, who came to Land of Lincoln through the partnership with the VA, had multiple lawsuits brought against him by creditors for credit card debt the veteran had accumulated trying to survive. A Veterans Legal Corps attorney was able to negotiate with opposing counsel, and get all the suits dismissed, including the dismissal of a suit for an $18,000 debt. With advice from Land of Lincoln, the veteran applied for SNAP benefits and SSDI to help him in the future. In another recent case, a veteran came to the Veterans Legal Corps after a default judgment for possession and a money judgment had been entered against him. Land of Lincoln successfully vacated the order of possession and money judgment over opposing counsel’s objections. At trial, Land of Lincoln argued that the court did not have jurisdiction because service of the five-day notice was improper. The judge agreed and the veteran was able to avoid having an eviction on his record, and hoped to apply for a VA home loan when he was approved for Social Security.

Despite the hard work of the Veterans Legal Corps at Land of Lincoln and elsewhere, access to legal assistance remains one of the largest unmet needs of our veterans, and there are many veterans who are still unable to access legal services. Through pro bono work, the legal community can help veterans navigate the legal system and overcome the barriers to success.

It is important to take time to remember and thank our veterans. Because so many veterans are still unable to access legal assistance, please consider getting involved in pro bono work focused on meeting the legal needs of veterans in your area. Please contact Emily Vock or Leah Engle with the Land of Lincoln Veterans Legal Corps at (217) 356-1351 or by email at evock@lollaf.org or lengle@lollaf.org for information about pro bono opportunities with veterans in the central Illinois area.

Posted on November 23, 2015 by Chris Bonjean
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