(readMedia) The New York State Bar Association Tuesday called for providing veterans of the U.S. military with better access to quality legal services. It also recommended the creation of more specialized veterans courts, such as the successful Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo, the first of its kind in the nation.
These are among the recommendations of the report of the special committee on veterans, which was approved by the association's house of delegates at its Nov. 17 meeting in Albany.
"The transition from active duty to civilian life can be difficult for some of our servicemen and women," said Bar Association President Seymour W. James Jr. (The Legal Aid Society in New York City). "Often, our veterans find themselves in need of legal counsel, uncertain where to turn. The report sets forth a roadmap for improving the quality of legal services available to those who have given so much to our nation."
The report noted a shifting understanding of the special nature of the legal needs of many military veterans. When veterans returned from service in Vietnam, "virtually no thought was given to providing specialized legal services, tailored to military culture, custom or need," the report said. "Fortunately, history has begun to change for our veterans."
Although services for veterans have improved since the Vietnam era, much more needs to done, the report said.
Today, too many veterans return home to face myriad problems related to their service, such as losing their jobs or not being able to find work; readjusting to civilian and family life; securing economic assistance and military benefits; drug and alcohol abuse; medical and mental health problems (including those related to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries); domestic violence; and homelessness. Compounding the problem is the fact that many returning soldiers often are reluctant to ask for the help they desperately need, viewing it as a sign of weakness.
The report cited the work of local bar associations and the creation of specialized veterans courts in Erie and Monroe counties. But, the report said, more needs to be done.
The report's major recommendations are summarized below.
•New York lawyers increasingly are eager to assist the veteran community. To be effective, attorneys need adequate training - not just in the law, but in military culture and how it might affect the way veterans deal with legal issues. Ongoing education for lawyers is the key to bridging this gap.
•Citing the success of the groundbreaking Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court, the report advocates amending the judiciary law to create new veterans courts where access to programs and services for veterans is greatly enhanced. The report also recommends that the State Legislature enact a law that would allow cases involving veterans to be transferred from a county without a veterans court to a nearby county that has one.
•The report recommends creating a panel of lawyers, under the auspices of the state bar's "Lawyer Referral and Information Service," to assist veterans seeking quality legal services. One suggestion is to create a dedicated toll-free number for veterans seeking referrals for qualified lawyers.
•The special committee will compile a comprehensive statewide resource directory for veterans that identifies existing specialized civil legal services, pro bono legal services, medical and mental health services, Veterans Administration services, drug treatment and housing programs.
The 43-member committee is co-chaired by Karen R. Hennigan of Brooklyn and Michael C. Lancer of Buffalo. Hennigan, a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Lancer, a former military attorney who served in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps, is managing attorney at Collins & Collins in Buffalo.
The special committee on veterans was created by Immediate Past President Vincent E. Doyle III of Buffalo (Connors & Vilardo LLP).
"As lawyers, we are honor-bound to provide our returning servicemen and women access to the best legal services that our profession can offer. We believe this report is an important first step in accomplishing this," Hennigan said.
"Veterans confront so many challenges when they return stateside. None should ever feel that legal services are beyond their reach," Lancer said. "With this report, we have moved closer to finding solutions."
The 41-page report is available for review or download at www.nysba.org/veteransreport.
The 77,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.