WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced legislation to increase cooperation between the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and veterans legal clinics, such as the Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic housed at the College of William and Mary and the Mason Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic (M-VETS) at George Mason University. The Veterans Legal Support Act of 2021 would allow the VA to provide funding to law school legal clinics that provide pro bono legal services to veterans.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that too many of our nation’s veterans encounter bureaucratic obstacles in accessing the assistance or benefits they’ve rightfully earned. In order to help address these challenges, veterans legal clinics have stepped in to provide free quality legal services to help veterans cut through the red tape,” said Sen. Warner. “Given the extraordinary sacrifices our veterans have made for our country, I’m proud to be introducing this bill to help our veterans get the timely assistance they need.”
“Veterans legal clinics do tremendous work serving our most vulnerable veterans, allowing them to access essential, high-quality legal services. With many veterans facing bureaucratic challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – on issues like foreclosure, accessing public benefits and processing disability claims – ensuring they have access to legal assistance has never been more important,” said Sen. Shaheen. “My bill with Senator Warner allows the VA to work more closely with law school legal clinics to provide critical assistance to the brave men and women who have served and sacrificed for our nation.”
Legal clinics and their student volunteers have helped address disability claims backlogs and veterans homelessness in communities across the country. Under attorney supervision, students provide a range of pro bono legal services, including assistance with disability claims, foreclosures, bankruptcies, divorce, child custody and some minor criminal cases. By assisting veterans with complicated benefits claims, legal clinics are turning the VA’s most time-consuming cases into organized applications that are significantly easier to process. In addition, preventative services like expedited claims assistance and legal counsel offer veterans an opportunity to address challenges before they deteriorate, often resulting in significant long-term savings to the government.
“The Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic of the William & Mary Law School has been at the forefront of efforts to assist veterans while educating future lawyers who are imbued with a deeply held public service ethos. Since its establishment in 2008, the efforts of William & Mary Veterans Benefits Clinic students and staff have resulted in the awarding of over $54 million in projected lifetime benefits to veterans. The Veterans Legal Support Act of 2021 would help the Puller Clinic expand efforts to meet the pressing unmet needs of veterans in Virginia and would greatly assist in establishing a more stable foundation for the Clinic’s continued operation,” said Michael Dick, Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.) and Co-Director, the Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic.
“The Mason Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic (“M-VETS”) strongly supports the legislation introduced by Senator Warner and Senator Shaheen, the Veterans Legal Support Act of 2021. As a pro bono law school legal clinic, this legislation is extremely important and would provide critical funding for law school pro bono veterans clinics across the country in their pursuit of securing vital Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and entitlement claims. This type of financial assistance would enable M-VETS to grow its staff, expand its scope of services, and ensure more veterans have quicker access to justice and receive the benefits they earned from their military service. Established in 2004 as the first law school veterans legal clinic in the country, M-VETS provides free legal representation to veterans, active duty service members, and their families while allowing law students to gain practical legal experience under the supervision of practicing attorneys. M-VETS provides representation in a variety of matters, including Virginia civil litigation matters, uncontested divorces, consumer protection matters, wills and powers of attorney, as well as assisting with matters before the Department of Veterans Affairs and various administrative boards, including discharge upgrades, record corrections, military pay and entitlement matters, medical and physical evaluation boards, Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims,” said Timothy M. MacArthur, Director & Clinical Professor, Mason Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic (M-VETS).
Sen. Warner has been a longtime supporter of legal clinics dedicated to serving our nation’s veterans. In April 2013, he sent letters to then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and President Obama urging them to partner with the Puller Clinic to help veterans cut through red tape and reduce the VA claims backlog. Sen. Warner also sent a letter to each of his Senate colleagues promoting the Puller Clinic model, and met with Secretary Shinseki to advocate for the Puller Clinic program as a national model to help the VA solve its backlog challenges. He also worked to secure the Puller Clinic’s certification as a national “best practice” program, making it the first law school clinic in the nation to receive the VA designation.
A copy of the bill text can be found here.