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Editorial: Bet on bill to steer veterans to legal help

If you are of a betting persuasion, take the odds on swift legislative action on bills that will help Washington veterans find free legal representation.

The measures, HB 2496 and SB 6300, are modeled after a pioneering program in Nevada that assisted its first clients last year. The idea was hatched by that state’s attorney general, Adam Paul Laxalt, a former U.S. Navy judge advocate general.

A survey of Nevada’s current and former military personnel found that affordable legal services was a problem for 61 percent of those who responded.

The program quickly recruited more than 100 attorneys pledging at least 10 hours of pro bono (free) service. A pilot effort launched in June assisted 31 people with issues that included landlord/tenant conflicts, wills/powers of attorney and small claims.

One involved a criminal matter, which would not be handled by the proposed Office of Military and Veteran Legal Assistance within the Washington attorney general’s office. The bills that would create the office were introduced at the request of Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The office would provide no legal help on its own. Rather, it would be a clearinghouse for information and attorney referrals, and attorney training.

The circumstances of military life create a unique set of problems. Service members, active duty and reserve, are subject to sudden moves and episodic deployments, and the family separation issues that arise as a result. The adequacy and continuity of health care may be a problem.

But they also have legal protections not available to civilians. For example, rental leases are subject to cancellation without penalty in the event of deployment orders. Not every lawyer is familiar with those laws.

One of the functions of the new office will be assessing an individual’s need, then assigning that person to volunteer attorneys. The bills make no reference to means-testing: deciding whether former, active-duty or reservists have the enough resources of their own to pay for legal representation.

A spokeswoman said the office will focus on unmet needs, presumably those that veterans cannot afford.

Those questions will be sorted out by an advisory committee of military and civilian legal representatives, including the state bar association, and other groups that support members or former members of the military and their families.

Neither the attorneys who participate nor the state would be liable for damages if the legal help is provided in good faith.

The attorney general would be authorized to seek donations and grants to help underwrite the program’s costs.

Washington, with its numerous military facilities and quality of life, has become home to 600,000 veterans, about 50,000 of those in Spokane County. That huge pool of potential clients could swamp a legal services program not ready to serve them.

The Legislature should make short work of the bills, but the advisers should assure the new office is prepared for its day in court.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”


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