Editorial Column – Veterans Still Kept From Legal Help

Herald Tribune

May 19, 2007 – Should veterans enjoy the same legal rights as Social Security claimants, or even undocumented workers?

This question was addressed by the Veterans Benefits, Health Care and Information Technology Improvement Act of 2006 (Public Law No. 109-461), discussed in the excellent May 13 article “Law that opens door for lawyers divides veterans.”

The constraint on legal representation for veterans dates back to the Civil War. In 1862, Congress enacted a statute imposing a $5 limit — two years later doubled to $10 — on fees to attorneys or other agents assisting veterans in applying for pensions, allowances and other benefits.

In 1988, Congress recognized that the cap was ana- chronistic and eliminated it. The same statute, however, prohibited veterans from retaining a lawyer prior to completion of a complex Department of Veterans Affairs administrative process culminating in a final decision by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Many a viable case is lost long before that stage.

Veterans’ service organizations — most notably the Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars — are doing an excellent job representing claimants. But their resources are limited, and the annual number of VA claims has risen to around 800,000, with a backlog of approximately 400,000. The VA itself has a small army of lawyers to keep up, but claims will surge with increasing numbers of Iraq war veterans.

Veterans are still not entitled to legal representation from the outset, but only following their first adverse ruling (filing of a “notice of disagreement”).

The ultimate issue is freedom of choice. The decision on representation by counsel in a particular case should reside with the claimant, and veterans should not be precluded by the government from enjoying the same rights as others in this regard.

Jan Schneider

Harold Schneider
World War II veteran and Jan Schneider’s father. They reside in Sarasota.

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