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New office could offer free legal help to military, vets in Washington

FILE - Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson in September 2016. (Ellen M. Banner / AP)
FILE - Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson in September 2016. (Ellen M. Banner / AP)

OLYMPIA – Military members and veterans would get more access to legal help and stronger consumer protection under a pair of proposals Attorney General Bob Ferguson is asking the Washington Legislature to consider.

Ferguson wants authority to create an Office of Military Legal Assistance that would recruit, train and coordinate private and public attorneys willing to offer “pro bono” legal aid to military members, their families and veterans.

Washington has more than 69,000 military personnel, with more than 90,000 dependents. Add to that nearly 20,000 reservists and another 8,000 members of the National Guard who can get called to active duty and some 600,000 veterans. All of them can have special legal and consumer problems tied to their service, Ferguson said.

Legal officers on military bases focus on military law and often aren’t familiar with state law or licensed to practice in local civilian courts, Ferguson said. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not have a nationwide legal aid program, and while there are some programs around the state that offer legal help to military members or veterans, he worries that they aren’t coordinated.

Legislation in both the House and Senate, with bipartisan support, is patterned after a successful program in Nevada and would give the attorney general’s office the authority for a full-time person to recruit lawyers and conduct training.

Similar legislation passed the House unanimously last year, but stalled in the Senate as time ran out. “This year, it’s a longer session, and we’re getting an earlier hearing,” Ferguson said.

Committees in both chambers have scheduled hearings on the proposal Wednesday morning.

A new proposal would also expand consumer protection for military personnel who are deployed overseas or transferred to a new base. Federal and state law already protect them from foreclosures, certain default judgments and penalties on auto and residential leases.

But they can still be stuck with penalties on long-term contracts for cable, internet or phone services or gym memberships. The proposal would extend the same protections against penalties to those contracts.

Travis Alley, a deputy attorney general, said business practices have changed since the last time the state passed consumer protection laws for military personnel, and more people are put into long-term contracts for services.

“When they deploy overseas, sometimes it’s a rush,” Alley said. When they return, they find missed payments for services they aren’t using are hurting their credit.

The House version of the consumer protection bill also has a hearing Wednesday morning.

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