Low-Income Military Personnel

Overview

Since 1940, the American Bar Association has had a strong, formal commitment to supporting the legal needs of America's military servicemembers and their dependents. Events leading up to America's entry into World War II in 1942 brought a new complexity of legal challenges, including proper implementation of "Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act of 1940" legislation to ensure that the rights of our servicemembers and their families were not prejudiced by answering the call of duty. The ABA contended that the requisite legal assistance for enforcement of these and other rights was integral to battle-readiness and troop morale. Initially it led the way, helping to organize the bar to provide legal assistance to servicemembers. In 1943, both the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, in formal collaboration with the ABA, developed plans for the provision of these services – collaboration for which the ABA received a letter of commendation at the close of World War II from the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy. The ABA remained a steadfast advocate for the continuation of these legal protections and the need for legal assistance even at the end of hostilities. Through American history of armed combat since, the need for such assistance is proved. More recently, the complexity of issues has increased, including increases in separation/divorce and remarriage, with relevant custody issues; consumer fraud; bankruptcies; and estate work for surviving families in light of significant increases in the survivor death benefit. Many of these matters present unique questions when applied to servicemembers who may relocate frequently and to whom special federal statutory regulations apply. Such work requires lawyers with expertise beyond that of the traditional civilian practitioner.

Despite a steady increase in the number of military personnel and their families who qualify for legal assistance over the years, available resources for providing these services has decreased with military budget cuts. Even for those funds allocated, they are only available for legal assistance "as resources permit." Legal assistance has historically been properly funded; however, cuts continue causing changes in legal assistance programs. At no time should the nation’s soldiers and sailors or their dependents be unable to secure appropriate legal assistance such a will and other basic documentation to settle their affairs while asking them to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. While some members of the military are more likely to secure appropriate legal counsel on their own, low-income servicemembers are at a disadvantage and should always know such assistance will be available, regardless of an inability to pay.

Key Points

  • Since 1940, legal assistance has been recognized as a vital part of battle-readiness and troop morale, allowing servicemembers to focus on their duties.

  • Legal assistance for soldiers and sailors willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our nation and our security should not be a discretionary matter. The idea that a servicemember could fall in the line of duty intestate because they could not afford a lawyer is unconscionable.

  • Legal assistance has traditionally been adequately funded. Ensuring it as a matter of right would not increase funding; only require that funding never fall below a fraction of historical levels.

  • Our servicemembers serve to protect our nation, but their focus is often on their families. The legal needs and security of a servicemember's dependents are often inextricable from those of the servicemember. Accordingly, the guarantee of assistance should extent to the families, as well.

ABA Policy

The ABA supports legislation guaranteeing for low-income military personnel, pay grade E-6 and below, and their dependents, legal assistance as a matter of right.

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