June 01, 2011

Justice for Troops Act to Provide Access to Pro Bono Legal Help for Servicemembers

A bipartisan bill introduced last month in the Senate would authorize the Defense Department (DoD) to support approved programs designed to provide pro bono legal representation to low-income military families – a move strongly supported by the ABA.

S. 1106, sponsored by Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would authorize the DoD to use up to $500,000 to help provide these servicemembers the full range of legal representation they require.

Introducing the bill May 26, Kohl pointed out that while Judge Advocate Generals (JAGs) and civilian military legal assistance attorneys from all branches of the military provide servicemembers with significant legal services, there are situations that go beyond what those military legal assistance programs can provide in a given case, such as prolonged and complex custody battles that involve in-court representation. Without specialized representation, “troops run the risk of losing custody of their children, being evicted from their homes, or facing financial ruin,” he said.

The legislation would build on a patchwork of private sector programs that work in cooperation with military legal assistance to better meet the range of civil legal needs these low-income families may face. Law school clinics, state and local bar association programs and the ABA Military Pro Bono Project all are examples of such efforts. These programs often maintain lists of attorneys who volunteer to provide their services at no cost, either in consultation with military base programs or by accepting referrals from military legal assistance offices.

According to Kohl, the $500,000 authorized in the bill would allow pro bono projects to build their databases, form connections, and ensure that every JAG office knows about these resources and how to refer servicemembers to the programs.

“This small investment would be leveraged into providing free legal assistance to countless men and women who serve our country. We will no doubt enhance our military readiness by eliminating the stress and anxiety caused by legal problems,” Kohl said.

“Our troops serve our country bravely and deserve our support,” according to ABA President Stephen N. Zack. He noted in a recent President’s Page in the ABA Journal that even though the ABA Military Pro Bono Project, in just three years, has involved more than 1,100 attorneys and directed approximately 325 cases in 41 states, “we are not even close to meeting the need.”

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